Sunday, June 9, 2013

#244-revised 5x

Fifth revision

Dear QueryShark:

Daphne Smith could not have cared less when informed of her husband's death. By that time the farm was lost, as she had assumed was their dairy herd; her girls. Now Daphne was forced by Henry's antics from being a wife sleep walking through her life, to legal plaything swatted back and forth between interrogations and court appearances at the whim of bewildering bureaucracy.   


Former farm employees, Beth, and farm manager John Paul, rally to her aide. But Beth is revealed to have has a criminal computer cracking history, and John Paul - if that's his real name - will never give a straight answer to a simple question about himself. When John Paul informs Daphne that on Henry's instructions he's sold the herd from under her creditors‚ noses creditor's noses and converted the proceeds into untraceable Bitcoin currencyShe faces an impossible choice. Slow, public bankruptcy through the courts and local media, with possible jail time for being partner to a fraud she had no knowledge of. Or trusting John Paul's plan for her fantastical escape, at the price of having to and leave behind everyone she loves. Her decision complicated by a suspicion But are John Paul and Beth may be acting secretly in concert, for a purpose unknown to her?
 
You're getting the hang of paring down (just look at that first query and you'll see the progress you've made)  But you've still got these godawful awkward sentences** and if I see them here, I know I'll see them in  your novel.  This is INSTANT rejection.  No matter how interesting the concept, no matter anything else, if I think I'm going to be editing at this level on your manuscript I'm not going to read on.  It's imperative that your sentences flow smoothly in a query. (And also your novel of course) 
**But Beth is revealed to have a (Beth has)
**her decision complicated by a suspicion (she's suspicious)

Daphne throughout is preoccupied by the puzzle her husband became. How could he have changed so much to do what he did? How did she let her life leak away for a man who would not allow her a family, and who took and took, never gave back, with the final reward for her love being police and tax officials on her door with truncheons and tasers?




At 71,000 words, AUDIT 4891 is a first novel. Thank you for your time and consideration.


Even this sentence is awkward. The fact that it's 71,000 words has no relation to the fact it's your first novel.

This is the better arrangement: AUDIT 4891 is my first novel. It's 71,000 words. OR AUDIT 4891, my first novel, is 71,000 words.

See the difference?



If you don't, your eye isn't keen enough to self-edit. You need to do a couple things to train your eye:


1. Help other writers edit their work. I don't mean hang out your shingle as a professional editor. I mean join a writers' critique group, or get involved with online crit groups, or in some way get involved with other writers at the editing level.

2. Read more. And I don't mean read for pleasure. In fact, you should probably just start with writing out by hand the text of a novel you love. This will get you in to the bones of the novel. You'll really see it for the first time if you're writing it out. The physical act of writing also helps your brain to see what works. Not typing on to a computer screen. Actual hand writing.

This is also a very good way to memorize poems.






Take some time to work out the kinks here, and also take a look at your novel.  It's not going to do you any good to have a nice taut query letter if your manuscript is a mess. (There was a question about just that problem on my blog this week)


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Fourth revision
Dear Query Shark:

Henry Smith had been a foolish man, his litany of mistakes, lousy judgement and foul moods, precipitating a series of events that would end his life on Christmas Day of 2012. Daphne Smith, by the time she was informed of monomaniacal Henry's death, couldn't have cared less. At least that's what she told herself, forced from being a wife sleep walking through her life, to legal plaything swatted back and forth through interrogations and court appearances at the whim of bewildering bureaucracy.


Consider this:
By the time she was informed of  her husband's death Daphne Smith couldn't have cared less.


See the difference?  Instead of telling us that Henry is monomaniacal and his litany of sins, let's get to the heart of it: his wife doesn't care. Leaving his sins uncatalogued actually gives the sentence some appeal:  it's not the norm that a wife wouldn't care that her husband is dead.



It also has the benefit of starting with the right person.


Nothing in a life of dairy farming and marriage had prepared her for the relentless forces dispassionately unleashed against her. Her only allies two unlikely strangers with murky histories and unstated agendas: white suited, pot smoking John Paul, and feral cracker, hacker, Beth.


You're using adjectives here to prop up one-dimensional characters.  That's not a good sign. If I see it here, I know I'll see it in the novel. If I know I'll see it in the novel, I know there's heavy lifting ahead for revisions.  I'm very very unlikely to ask for the full novel if I know there are major revisions required.

 
"white suited pot smoking" doesn't actually tell us much. Neither does "feral cracker, hacker" although it is a phrase that belongs in a poem. These phrases give us images but no sense of character.

And "relentless forces dispassionately unleashed against her" is as blank a slate as "shadowy forces" "billionaire recluse"--in other words, not good writing.

And in the end an impossible choice. Slow, public bankruptcy through the courts and local media, with possible jail time for being partner to a fraud she had no knowledge of. Or a fantastical chance to escape, but at the price of having to leave behind everyone she loves. All the time trying to piece together the puzzle her husband became: how he changed so much; how he could do what he did. But mostly, how she could have missed her life seeping slowly away for a man she once loved, who took and took, never gave back, until the police were on her door with truncheons and tasers.

I actually like what you've set up here as the impossible choice, I just wish you'd write it more simply.  I keep hammering on the need for simple straightforward writing in queries.  It's VERY HARD to do.  It looks easy until you try it.  But try you must.  The way to do it  is make every sentence start with the subject, then the verb, then the clause.  Once you have things in the write order, and the sentences in chronological order, you can see where the bones are. THEN you can  
decorate/revise.

Using the first sentence as an example:

By the time she was informed of  her husband's death Daphne Smith couldn't have cared less.

If you revise that to subject/verb/clause:

Daphne Smith could not have cared less when informed of her husband's death.

Which sentence is stronger?   


 
You can see here that paring down got us to that first sentence, then putting the words in the "right" order got us to the next place.  PLAN ON MULTIPLE REVISIONS as you work on your query.  It's not a matter of revising just words.  Sentence order, paragraph order---all those change as you get things streamlined.  This is why it takes a while to revise.  You simply can not hurry this process.

At 71,000 words, AUDIT 4891 is the first in a trilogy of literary fiction novels.

I always urge you to leave off the "this is the start of a series" even in genre fiction, let alone literary fiction. The novel must be able to stand alone.


This is better-you've got the length under control, and the character soup is gone-  but it still needs work.

Remember the goal here is to entice a reader to want more, not argue the merits of a case.
Revise. Resend.

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Third revision

Dear QueryShark:

Henry Smith has been a foolish man, and on Christmas Day of 2012, it's going to cost him his life.

This is a very good start to the query. Notice it's NOT a log line.  It's a classic hook.  Do I want to find out what happens next? You bet I do.

Why does this work?  We don't know anything about Henry Smith, but we've all done foolish things.  Raising the stakes to "it's going to cost him his life" makes us wonder what he's done that's been THAT foolish.

(2) Henry has hit the wall of his middle age, barely coping with the small decisions, let alone the important ones. His marriage is faltering and stress level peaking trying to keep a debt-laden farm afloat. Now dire consequences result from not telling wife, Daphne, they have been selected for an income tax audit.

And then...oof. Lots of exposition. Lots of exposition that doesn't entice me at ALL to read on. You went from enticing to splat in record time here.

(3) Worse, on receiving the audit notification Henry finds the thought of having to hand over their lives in annotated bank statements and source documents for examination by a complete stranger makes him physically ill, and cannot bring himself to comply. He foolishly replies to the investigator that he has always voluntarily paid the correct amount of tax, and so is no more obliged to cooperate with the tax department than a Jewish mother had been morally obliged to show the SS officers where she was hiding her children.

We're on the third revision and fourth iteration of this query. I'm starting to get the feeling that you're writing this book to make a point.  That's a VERY dangerous thing to convey in a query.  I don't read books to be "educated" about stuff. I read for entertainment. If I learn something along the way, that's all good and well, but this paragraph makes me think you're going to be soapboxing about the evils of the tax system.

None of us like to pay taxes (well, ok  I know a couple people who don't actively hate it but that's as far as I'll go.)

But we've all become accustomed to the requirements of the internal revenue machine.  Showing someone your bank statement isn't some sort of "oh my god, hide the children, the Visigoths are upon us moment."



And asking us to care about a guy who thinks that this IS a Visigoth moment is very very tricky.  Our sympathies are much more likely to be engaged if Inland Revenue has done something untoward.



The more Inland Revenue try to reason with Henry, the more intractable he becomes until he fatefully threatens there will be consequences for the investigator if he and his wife are not left alone. The Department has only the single option: to raid the Smiths on their farm, in a joint operation with police.

Oh good, the Visigoths ARE arriving.  You might be better off leaving all the stuff in paragraphs 2 and 3 and just saying something like Henry refused to cooperate and now the Visigoths are upon him.

Technical irregularities are discovered in Henry and Daphne‚s tax returns, and they are forced into bankruptcy, which finally breaks the unravelling thread of their marriage. Having lost everything Henry moves to Christchurch, keeping his promise to the investigator there would be a price exacted of him. Daphne is pulled into events her former life of certainty and known futures has not prepared her for. Henry is killed; whether by accident or intent is not initially known. Daphne is faced with ruination in the courts, or a seemingly fantastical chance to escape; but can she trust the two people offering to save her?

This is too much of the story.  A query needs to leap nimbly--this gets us down in the trenches of things and plods.



At 71,000 words, AUDIT 4891 is the first in a trilogy of literary fiction novels. Novel two will be the detective story of Daphne‚s parents searching for their daughter who has disappeared. Further tragedy envelopes the family when Daphne‚s mother is diagnosed with a terminal illness. The final novel follows a harried, grief-stricken, but stronger Daphne fighting for her freedom, if not her life, in a situation that appears impossible. Plus she must find how she can support her father through events that have overtaken him surrounding the death of his wife.    


No No No.

Don't waste a single one of your 250 word allotment on what the next book is about.  Focus solely on this book.

I'm still convinced the protagonist here is Daphne, who through no fault of her own ends up bankrupt and widowed, but that's just me.

Make sure we don't think your protagonist is a witless curmudgeon. It's hard to make me sympathize with a guy who refuses to do what I do all the time: cough up financial info. It's harder yet because part of my job is insisting that book publishing contracts include an audit clause that lets me be the Visigoth storming the gates of a publisher.


Revise. Focus on enticing us to read more, not reciting what happens.

-----------------------
 Second Revision

Dear QueryShark,

You're sorting through your office e-submissions, QS, query after query, perhaps reading first paragraphs to get a feel for the ones with promise. Your snail mail is delivered, stacked on an in-tray that is already full, your eyes drawn to the letter sitting on top, pressing the pile below it down by the sheer weight of the state. It’s a brown window envelope with HMRC printed in bold, ominous font on the front.

You realise that cliché one’s heart flutters and stops
has a firm basis in reality.

In reality, your heart flutters, stops.

You’re beginning to understand the significance of bypassing the salaried option with your Agency, and taking the independent contractor route.  That entertainment expenditure you claimed last year, and the conference in Fiji may have been a bit hopeful as tax deductions go.

There’s nothing for it. Gritting your teeth, you pick up the envelope and in a single fluid motion, put your finger under the fold-over flap on the reverse, running it down to break the seal of the glue before losing your resolve. And your nerve.

Damn. It’s as bad as you thought.

You're up for an all-taxes audit. The investigator wants your bank statements, both business and private accounts, every withdrawal and receipt annotated. Also other relevant source documents, plus a narrative, up to three A4 pages, please, setting out your financial and business interests. The audit will begin with a two hour interview you have no legal choice but attend.

Faced with the shock and awe powers of the tax department, far greater than the police, what are you going to do?

If you are prudent, QS, you will suck up the discomfort at this invasion of your privacy and comply, hoping you’ve missed nothing in your returns.

Unfortunately, Henry Smith was not such a prudent man. If you want to know how it ends for him, you’ll find out by reading AUDIT 4891, a 71,000 word literary fiction – best I can describe it - first novel.  This is the initial novel of a trilogy following the story of Henry’s demise, killed on Christmas Day of 2012, and how his wife, Daphne, is pulled into events her former life of certainty and known futures has not prepared her for.




This is a classic CLASSIC example of why you don't want to use gimmicks in query letters.  For starters, we get letters from the tax guys all the time. Between the tax forms for certifying residency in the US, the tax forms and notices for any of the myriad of taxes we pay, and just the general notices we get every year cause a name and a number don't match on the 1099s, tax notices are a daily event.

And if the tax man is coming to call, most likely he's sending that notice to my home address. The address I use to file my returns.

So, right from the start you have not made me bond with your protagonist.  You've just made me think "no no no." And that's bad bad bad.



And "if you want to know what happens, read the book" is one of those phrases that sets my teeth on edge. I'm sure you didn't know that or you wouldn't have used it.  

A query MUST tell me the protagonist and the choices s/he faces.  I know it's hard to do with this book, but you can't dodge the bullet with a gimmick.

No gimmicks in queries.

That's a rule. A big one.


Revise. Resend.

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


First revision
Dear QueryShark:

Henry Smith has been a foolish man, and on Christmas Day of 2012, it's going to cost him his life. His marriage is faltering and stress level peaking trying to keep a struggling, debt-laden farm afloat. Then dire consequences result from not telling wife, Daphne, they are up for a tax audit. Worse, refusing to cooperate with the auditor, he gives the tax department only one choice; to raid the couple on their farm, jointly with police. So begins a psychological cat and mouse struggle between Henry and the auditor in the dangerous streets of earthquake damaged Christchurch, New Zealand, as the citizens of that city try to claw their lives back to normalcy while living through two major quakes, and the sequence of over twelve thousand aftershocks that followed.

Keep the focus on the characters and what faces them specifically.

You're telling us that he doesn't cooperate with the auditor but not why.  That's a key element to understanding what choices Henry faces, and what the stakes are in the novel. Right now there's no choice, so Henry just seems like a intransigent old codger.

Daphne is left distraught by the events of the raid. Henry was tasered trying to punch the Inland Revenue supervisor, and taken away unconscious in an ambulance. She feels violated, helpless and alone. With no trust in Henry left, she leaves him and the farm to reconsider her life. Unfortunately she can‚t escape the repercussions of his leaving hospital and then increasingly anarchic actions stalking the auditor and his family, publishing their private lives to his public blog. Finally on Christmas Day, 2012, events in Christchurch come to their tragic conclusion, Henry killed. Daphne is faced with a cruel choice that a previous life of certainty and known-futures has not equipped her to make. In the end all she can do is choose between family, or saving herself, then step into her doubts



These are some very awkward phrases
"With no trust in Henry left"
"increasingly anarchic actions stalking the auditor"
"Henry killed"

Either this is incredibly sloppy proof reading or you don't recognize this isn't polished writing. No matter why, this kind of writing is an automatic rejection.  A query isn't just about the book, it's about how well you write and revise.

Also, you've listed the entire plot. This is more like a synopsis than a query. A query should just entice the reader to want more, not give the whole plot away.

This novel, while self-contained, is written as the first part of a series.


INCOME TAX AUDIT REFERENCE 4891-IRDCHCH - A MEMOIR BY DAPHNE SMITH is a 68,000 word literary fiction first novel, shifting in tone from the grim parody of Orwell, to the comedic satire of Tom Sharpe, and set in our age of big data where the Western taxing state, unleashed by the financial collapse of 2008, has become the surveillance state.






I'm not sure how you chose this title, but it doesn't make any sense to me at all. For starters the first four words make it sound like an IRS circular. While I've read IRS circulars (who among us hasn't) I don't pick them up in bookstores for pleasure reading. The next two words are gibberish. The last four words make me wonder if the book is a novel or a memoir.



You've got three strikes on the title. Normally I say it doesn't make any difference what you title a book in a query, but in this case, it actively dampens my interest in the book. Good titles are compelling. One or two words are best, four at the max. You're basing this book on 1984. Notice: one word. And when it was published in 1949, it was spelled out as Nineteen Eighty-Four. You may not know what it means if you haven't read it, but you don't think it's an IRS circular! 


This is better than the initial query, but it needs more work.  

Revise 
Focus 
Polish 
Resend

--------------------------
Initial query
Dear QueryShark


Winston Smith has been a foolish man, and on Christmas Day of 2012, it's going to cost him his life.  


This is a great opening line. Do I want to find out what happened? You bet.

On top of a faltering marriage - and there’s been no sex for eight months - not only has he neglected to tell wife, Julia, their heavily indebted dairy farm is up for an income tax audit, but he’s corresponded with the auditor that "the thought of having to hand over my life in letters and source documents for examination by you, a total stranger, on pain of punishment, makes me physically ill," and he will not be cooperating with the Inland Revenue Department.

And then you take veer so completely off the path of taut, lean prose that it's almost like you've morphed into Prolix Man.

For starters, don't quote the novel in the query. Also, we don't need to know why the marriage is faltering, just that it is. And the only thing we really need to know is the audit is going to be a big surprise to Julia.

Tom Parsons life previously could have been summed up in a word: inertia. Married to mousy Sally, the one girl he dated at high school, their marriage has become routine since the birth of their son, Syme.


What? Wait. Who? What happened to Winston and Julia?  This abrupt segue is confusing. Remember, I'm not sitting on my sofa with a cup of tea, savoring your query. I'm not reading this like I read a novel. I'm sitting at my desk, I've got ten minutes before a scheduled phone call and I’m trying to find the queries that entice me to read on. In other words, I'm reading fast and mostly skimming. Whether you think this is a good idea, or fair is immaterial. It's reality and  a smart query writer will write to his/her audience.

What that means: You make sure I know who a new character is by telling me "Inland Revenue agent Tom Parsons"

And you don't have FIVE NAMED CHARACTERS in the first two paragraphs. At the most you have two.

Only planning on a four year stint when taking his first job at IRD, he’s still there after over quarter of a century(1). Now his teenage son has announced over saveloys and tomato sauce he’s got his school girlfriend pregnant, and the physical relief Tom has sought in the flesh of his mistress, Jill, IRD Customer Services, working the floor above his stalled career, is treading a complicated path: he doesn't get her jokes, he doesn't get her kink, his libido is all but destroyed by the stress of work, his audit of Winston and Julia Smith - culminating in a combined police / IRD raid of their house during a twentieth anniversary tea where a naked Julia had been trying to revive their love life - has entered the Kafkaesque with Winston now stalking Tom and his family and posting their movements to his public blog – ('if Winston and his wife have no right to be left alone, or privacy, neither will Tom Parsons.')(2) And were that not enough, Tom has a sore back giving him hell, and Sally has become an emotional wreck, pushed beyond her limits by Smith in his spotlessly clean overalls and shiny gumboots watching their house from the street, while trying to cope with life in a city caught in a civil defence emergency.(3)

This paragraph has 221 words and three sentences. This is an disaster of epic proportion in a query letter.  Remember, I'm reading fast, skimming even.  Even if your novel has Faulknerian sentence structure, YOUR QUERY CAN NOT.

So the lives of Winston Smith and Tom Parsons cross tragically in the streets of Christchurch, New Zealand, as its inhabitants survive hardship through the series of over ten thousand aftershocks following an initial  7.1 magnitude earthquake on September, 2010, and the subsequent fatal earthquake of 22 February, 2011, one hundred and eighty six people killed; the only constant being the unpredictability of the next shake, and the "sound of the demolition crews removing the jig-saw of the city from the Canterbury Plains a piece at a time."

You don't need all this detail.

The two men's modern day parable will change and devastate the lives of all involved:

Here's where I stop reading. Parable is an almost instant rejection.  Show me a good story, and if I can see the connections or the lessons implicit within, you'll have done a good job. Let me reach those conclusions on my own.

Winston Smith will go under the wheel of Parson’s car, but only after first seeing his marriage destroyed, and loss of the farm he has worked his life for, as the bureaucratic machine of IRD begins the serpentine process of liquidation and bankruptcy.

 Don't reveal the outcome of novel in the query. You destroy any desire to read the book to find out what happens.

Tom Parsons life devolves to failure and absurdity: his mistress's book club is reading Fifty Shades of Grey, and sex has become a gauntlet of humiliation, which he gets enough of at work; the Marxist feminist co-op running the corner fish and chipy won’t serve him because he’s a bloke; due to Smith's stalking, Sally has found out about his affair, confronted him in his y-fronts in his mistress’s kitchen, and thrown him out to live in their condemned, roofless Red Zone home; finally he can’t communicate with Syme in his son's first time of needing fatherly guidance, and then on Christmas Day of 2012, his nemesis stalker appears before the bonnet of his car, walking across an intersection - all witness reports agree to his initial acceleration, but did he then try to brake before impact?

One sentence. 138 words.

For Sally Parsons, ‘the sleep walk of her life was ended, an itinerary ... reporting her husband’s unfaithfulness shaking her awake, as the city had been, buildings and lives uprooted from the known and the safe;’ finding a strength to live alone with her anxiety. Her first task is to sort out the mother of the girl her son has made pregnant, ensuring access to the child when born.



Syme Parsons travels from boyhood to a nascent, ill-formed manhood with limitations already on his future. Albeit he's lucky to have made it out of youth, thanks to Winston Smith saving him from the violence of an out of control Facebook street party.

        .

And Julia Smith will be left with the biggest decisions of her life. Leaving her husband in the hospital after he was tasered in the IRD raid trying to punch Parsons boss, O'Brien, she moves to the Mahau Sound to decide if she loves Winston, if she can trust him again, and if she will ever move back. She begins a journal on their lives in the hopes of figuring a path through the startling and frightening mess her life has become - the press are using scary words like fraud and evasion with her name after them, which she knows are lies. Then when Winston is killed she is faced with two choices:



Watching helplessly while the bureaucracy slowly pulls her life apart: “Looking at the correspondence, all these suited, vicious men and women pushing and poking me, I can’t breathe. I can be sitting with a cup of coffee on the deck here in the Mahau, listening to cicadas in the manukas below, watching a seagull gliding freely in the wind, while on my lap is a letter that has politely separated my skin, leaving a tear from which my blood is filing out in an orderly fashion, commanded by statutory threats and court arraignments, to puddle around my feet, a sticky mass, until it slowly trickles through the gaps between the stained, splintered boards, and into the hard, dry ground beneath the house."



Or she can take the personal fortune offered to her in Bitcoin crypto-currency from an illegal sale of their dairy herd, and escape to the mysterious movement blossoming in the USA called Western Spring: a fishing boat can take her from the beach at Kaikoura to a sea-steading oil rig. Although to do so means losing everything she has known: leaving her life, not telling her parents or friends, nor seeing them again, in an act more selfish to them than what Winston has done to her, in order she can disappear into the silences where government spooks can’t hear. Although first there are two questions troubling her. What part in all that unravelled on the farm audit has been played by her new friend, diminutive, tattooed Beth Charrington, with her hacker past? More ominously, who is the pot smoking Philip K. Galt who has been installed to manage their farm, and who appointed him?

oh boy. MORE named characters.  At this point, frankly, I'm pretty lost about what the actual story is and who the protagonist is.

INCOME TAX AUDIT REFERENCE 19:84 - A MEMOIR BY JULIA SMITH is a 66,000 word literary fiction first novel, in which  the major characters of George Orwell’s 1984 are transported to the twenty first century

oh. It's Julia's story. Ok. You'll want to start with her then, and write this query about what choices she has to make.

and the age of Big Data where the taxing state has become the surveillance state, the taxing authorities unleashed in their police state powers by the aftershocks reverberating from the global financial crisis, tasked with extorting the money necessary to keep the crony zombie economies of the West on life support atop the  Keynesian hubris of debt built up over eighty years of profligate politicians bribing their electorates with the illusory promise of the free lunch offered by the welfare state. Depressingly, this is not a work of magical realism, fantasy or sci-fi;  no tax law, or privacy busting power of tax administration, have had to be changed or added to, for this novel to exist, which is written as the possible first part of a series set in the present day milieu of a coming economic collapse built on and dwarfing that from August 2008.

 You're writing a novel to make a point. This is always a huge red flag to me. I don't read novels to find out about the coming economic collapse. I read novels because I like good stories.

You're MUCH better off leaving out all the references to why you wrote the novel and just let the story entice me to read on. I'm a smart shark. I'll get what you're on about if you spin a good story.

Thank you for considering this work for representation.



[I have written to the literary agent of George Orwell's estate, A.M. Heath, for permission to use the characters of 1984 in this manner. Copyright for that work ends in six years. To date I've received no reply.]

Leave this out of the query


Summary of Submission:

Title: INCOME TAX AUDIT REFERENCE 19:84 - A MEMOIR BY JULIA SMITH

Genre: Literary Fiction

Word Count: 66,000 words.

Status: Sixth edit, and I'm putting in words I've previously taken out, so document now final. Considering professional edit.

Leave this out. I really really don't want to know how many edits you've done or if you lack confidence the novel is ready to show anyone. That's what "I'm considering a professional edit" means to me.

My Website: [redacted]

 Contact Details: Per signature below.

You have 1334 words in this query. A good taut query is 250.
You have too many characters, and too much of the book.
Go back and read the damn archives and find the many many places I've listed how to set up a query template to get plot on the page.

Limit your sentences to 10 words on the revision. Then figure out which sentences need to be longer. No sentence should be so long you can't say it aloud without taking a breath.

Queries are not novels. The style you employ for your novel may not work in your query.  Write your query to be read by someone reading at a brisk pace.

Start over.

57 comments:

Doug said...

Winston Smith? Is this 1984 fan-fic?

Unknown said...

A 1,334 word query for a 66,000 word book. This query is more than 2% as long as the book itself.

Janet Reid said...

If you read all the way down, you'll see it is indeed 1984-themed.

JeffO said...

You read much more than I would have, Janet; I got lost at 'saveloys and tomato sauce'.

Leaving aside all the issues with the query itself, is this sort of thing--i.e., a story that uses someone else's rather well-known characters--a concern, or is it all in the execution?

Theresa Milstein said...

If you have a novel with multiple POVs and several key characters, the query still needs to be through the lens of one person.

I look forward to reading queries here and I want to help people who post, so I usually read queries really carefully. But the lines were so long and labored and there were so many characters here. I wound up skimming. Queries are read online. They need to have punchy lines or the reader's eyes will cross.

nightsmusic said...

Holy crow! You lost me after the first line. All I kept thinking was that I hope the rest of the book isn't written like the query.

As an aside, I hated 1984 so unless this was brilliant, it would be a rejection from me. No matter I hated it, it's tough to top the original.

Beta Shy said...

Yeah- everything the Shark said.

I read the first sentence and thought “Yes! Someone read the archives.” And then…I don’t know what happened. So many words, so many details and names and more words. This was honestly like reading a query written in "captcha."

The Shark has a great rule of thumb: if a sentence can’t be read in one breath, it is probably too long.

It’s interesting though- the novel itself is only 66K words. The extreme length of the query seems at odds with that.

If you don’t want to read the archives, at least read the ones under “Queries that Got to Yes.”

If you’re planning to revise, really think about who your protagonist (singular!) is and start from there.

There are also examples in the archives that address using characters you did not create (#189) and writing from multiple POV view (if that is your goal).

Good luck!

Kirsten Erin said...

I stopped reading their query around the fourth paragraph and just read your comments. That was exhausting.

Mark Hubbard said...

Cheers Janet for putting this up. Two days ago I got a reply from AM Heath, literary agents for the estate of George Orwell, refusing permission to use the names of their characters due to 'licencing commitments'. It doesn't concern me overly as the story stands alone, albeit the Orwell characters gave it a nice additional level. So I shall be changing character names, but not the story.

For future revisions here at QueryShark, however, I'll stick to same names as my initial query, otherwise it'll be too confusing.

For next fortnight, the day job is ten hour days, so next revision will be sometime away, but will be coming. I'm not going to miss the great opportunity you're giving me to get at least the query letter right.

Kind regards

Mark Hubbard said...

Sorry, regarding my above comments, this is, of course, my query :)

Karo_Jachs said...

1984/Atlas Shrugged Crossover Fan Fiction.... that's going to be a tough sell, even with the most well-crafted query. Especially since the style of discourse makes me think Rand more than Orwell, so if that's how the novel is written....

I just feel that kind of Randian sermonizing has really gone out of fashion by now, although Rand's ideas (sadly, in my opinion) certainly haven't.

Then again, I know some people who like reading Rand even though they deplore her politics (they just skip all the author-tracts about objectivism going straight to the juicy bits). But she has all that kinky BDSM stuff too, so that might be the draw for them. (It's probably not her prose style, I'd suspect). We get that too in the query - the wife reading 50 Shades and stuff - but it almost seems as if the author himself didn't quite see the appeal.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I was done at "in the flesh of his mistress", personally.

Beckony said...

With this much plot going on (it seems like even if this is Julia's story, there are at least 3 characters whose tales will be told) I struggle to understand howthe writer has squeezed it into 66,000 words. Especially with the language he's got going on in the quoted portions. That would be a red flag for me--I would think that there is lots of stuff being glossed over for the sake of pretty language.

I think the plot sounds interesting, actually. I doubt the execution.

Teagan Marie said...

Opening, brilliant. After that I got lost.
To me, it read more like some strange form of query/synopsis hybrid.

Mark Hubbard said...

The shocking thing was I read the archives ... ;) Came adrift over confusion between between query and synopsis, and my heavy Baconesque sentences.

Thank you all for your comments: I'm learning a lot.

Despite my initial comment above, have decided to keep to this and see if I can get query sorted. Just about ready to post first revision to Janet (only 270 words in total), hoping to have made a better fist of it.

Sunbet said...

Seems like the best way to get your query on QS is to ignore the archives. Or if you've read them, forget all about them. Just do whatever the hell you feel like and have the QS repeat the same lessons she's given us time and time again.

Are there honestly no queries in queue from people that clearly HAVE read the archives, but who still need help getting to "yes?" I agree with what K. Hill said about the previous query. Those who clearly aren't learning anything from the archives are being rewarded by getting direct lectures from the source instead of being expected to learn from the over 200 query-students that came before them.

unlikelyexplanations.com said...

Using George Orwell's characters to rail against "profligate politicians bribing their electorates with the illusory promise of the free lunch offered by the welfare state" seems kind of Orwellian.

kregger said...

M. Hubbard,

Put the computer down and take a step back.

Or

Read the rules on revisions.

The first rule is to wait a week(at least).

No one can go from 1.3K query to 270 in a day and do it well. Unless, you had a drug induced epiphany with a brain-pan cathartic response ejected from your eyes at the same time.

I should know. (Talk about scaring the family pets)

I applaud you for sticking with this process. Thick skin is not easily earned.

Who is your MC?
What does s/he want?
What decisions or action does the MC take to accomplish the goal?

Good luck.

Mark Hubbard said...

Yes and no. I've been working on the query, extensively, and reading, reading, reading the archives, since sending the first query ...

Shawna said...

I, too, think that this sounds like an awful lot of story for only 66k words. There are too many details about side characters, and it takes a disturbingly long time to get to the point where the apparent protagonist actually enters the query in any significant way.

The first character you mention should probably be your protagonist. Then write the query through their eyes (so to speak, obviously not meaning first-person).

Rachel6 said...

After reading the query and the comments, I'm curious about the rewrite. For one thing, I'd like to see what Mark considers the story: Winston's life being destroyed and his subsequent stalking of the IRD agent responsible, or Julia learning her husband has been lying to her and trying to sort out the aftermath.

Steve Stubbs said...

I would suggest writing the plot in one short sentence and then looking at it. What I got from the query was: “Dairy farmer gets audited and his dairy farm seized to satisfy unpaid taxes.” I am sure the story is written extremely well, but if that is the plot it does not seem to me there is enough there for me to care. If your plot was: “Dairy farm loses his livelihood due to political corruption and goes on rampage” that might be more interesting. If it was: “Dairy farmer forced into hiding by mysterious sinister government officers and ends up saving the whole society,” that would be hard to pull off but more interesting still. You can see how it works. Summarize the whole story in one sentence and then ask yourself: if you were the reader and not the writer, would you read this? If not, the plot needs to be thought out again.

remedypeter said...

jmo, but I'd lose the 1984 references and overt political points and concentrate on telling a good story.

As off the screen as this query went, I think the overall story has potential.

Morgan said...

Does the length of the novel (66k words) play a role in an agent's decision making? I read on the Shark's other blog that novels should be between 80-100k words, but I notice she doesn't mention it here. Is that just a general guideline, or something that does occasionally hinder a query?

Mark Hubbard said...

Again, thanks for all comments. I'll let Janet put up the first revision in due course to see if I've answered some of the latter questions and criticisms.

Morgan, yes, the word count has been worrying me, however, I wrote the story in as many words needed, to my mind at least, and any more would be flanneling. I guess I live or die on that - or my novel does. All I've written is a story I'd like to read.

I'm just hoping in the age of the ebook, the old 100k word golden rule doesn't apply. But I don't know. (I'm pleased to see writers such as Ian McEwan talk up their favour for the novella.)

Nicholas Mena said...

I'm going to have to start using that line about sentence length in one breath.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

I do not like preachy novels that get up in my face about what they are going to teach me. Even if I learn lessons that stay with me forever.

I stepped out completely when I got to that section blanked out by QS.

Even chewy literary novels with themes that are opaque to light don't come off that way until it is too late and you are sucked into the story.

For example, "Q," an elegant thoughtful wrenching book by Evan Mandery can be summed up with, "On the eve of his wedding, the groom is told in no uncertain terms that he must not marry his fiance. The only problem is that the news is delivered by his future self."

No preaching there. But I double-dare you not to be touched (and even rubbed raw) by the weighty theme of "Can you avoid pain by inflicting pain?" and "If you could save someone who loves you great pain by going back and removing yourself from their life, would you?"

I will be interested in V2.0 of this query, because this version does not bode well for the book.

Mark Hubbard said...

Just out of pure interest, regarding some of the comments vis a vis sense of a 1984 'update', an interesting link:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/11/orwell-1984-sales_n_3423185.html?ir=Books&utm_campaign=061113&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Alert-books&utm_content=Title

George Orwell's '1984' Book Sales Skyrocket In Wake Of NSA Surveillance Scandal

Also, since the GFC sales of Ayn Rand have constantly been in the bestseller lists.

Assuming my novel is any good, and I could've received permission to use the characters, my timing would've been lovely :)

Quite frustrating.

BonnieShaljean said...

In addition to everything that Janet has said, and all the points made in the above comments - I never felt I got to know your Julia or Winston (et al), so couldn't work up any emotion to care what happened to them. Even if I could follow it! It's an intriguing idea, though. I hope you can focus in for some up-close-&-personal shots. Also, do change that horrible, horrible title, please! It just conjures up drudgery and unpleasantness and all the ugly realities we read in order to get away from. But I like your game spirit. Keep at it.

Nerd alert| Tom Parsons needs to get his apostrophe back.

Izza said...

I want this to end up being good purely because I've been away from New Zealand too long and miss saveloys and tomato sauce.

nightsmusic said...

Assuming my novel is any good, and I could've received permission to use the characters, my timing would've been lovely :)


Actually, that's not true considering it takes anywhere from 6 months at a really tight minimum, to a year to reach a finished product unless you plan on self-publishing.

Wendy Qualls said...

re: the copyright thing -

even if it looks like the copyright on 1984 ought to be expiring in six years, it's never wise to count on that until it actually expires. That goes double for any intellectual property still making money. (Thanks, Disney.) Copyright laws are strange and complex and expensive to defend against and you're better off either waiting until something is decades out of copyright or finding a way to change your work so you reference your source material without being close enough to draw the attention of the copyright holder.

Mark Hubbard said...

Wendy, AM Heath, literary agent for Orwell's estate, are saying US copyright on 1984 doesn't run out until 2044. (Ironically, it's run out already in Canada ... I could bootleg copies across the border :) )

But yes, a lesson for newbies. Do your homework, just because it seems like a good idea, it might not be.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

When they redid the copyright laws the last time (the Sonny Bono amendments) they slapped another 28 years onto whatever the existing copyright was.

So even though the Canadian copyright did expire in 2000, the copyright registered in the US has several more decades to go.

"Bootlegging" copies over the border won't help you. You are really barking up the wrong tree with Orwell characters.

There is a world of irony and mayhem out there cleanly published before 1923 and cleanly in the public domain if you need to build on old works.

Geekamicus said...

You know that quote from Elmore Leonard "Try to leave out the parts that readers skip"? That.

I loved "1984" and Yevgeny Zamyatin's "We". At first I thought goody, this sounds fun. But then I got bored. And I skipped a lot. Even if you have to change all the names, somewhere, deep inside this query is a story I'd have fun reading. (The guy gets run over by his auditor, how fun is that?) But if the book is like the query, you're going to have to edit away a lot of the skippable stuff to get to the gem of the story. And frankly, after that, with only 66k words to begin with, it's going to be less than a novella.

Mark Hubbard said...

All I can say, Geekimicus, is the novel it very different to the first draft of the query currently up: that's why I'm here - to work on the query; I'm having real trouble with it. Part of which is I like big sentences and I hate this text-speak ten word sentence nonsense: but I will adapt to it.

I personally believe the novel hangs together very tightly, and is driven by character, but it is trying to do something quite different to both the original, and the liberal ethic on which literature in the latter 20th and early 21st century is based. The novel includes, following TS Eliot's Wasteland and Profock, an entire pastiche of a better world, of the literature I love, in order to re-create a classical liberal ethic that no longer exists: only on 1984 do I have the copyright problem.

But I need to get an agent, et al, to read it, to prove that point. So, again, hence I am here, in the faraway land of queries, being gloriously flayed by Janet ... learning :)

Mark Hubbard said...

Um, just realised my last comment reads awfully. I'm not discounting that my novel may be dreadful; I cannot judge my own writing. I won't self publish simply because the traditional agent, publisher path ensures quality control: if my novel can't make it through that, then self publishing would possibly be to open myself to embarrassment. But that's why the query letter is so important. As the above comments show, I can (have) spent over two years of my spare time writing a novel, but a badly mangled half page query letter would consign it to the bottom draw without a single person in the industry having read it.

Beckony said...

@MarkHubbard.

My question on the character names would be: Why are they necessary? From this vantage point, it seems like a gimmick. You can have pastiche without relying on name recognition (I welcome you to take a brief look at Warren Ellis's "Aetheric Mechanics"). The problem with the names is that it sounds like you're hitting people over the head with your influences, when you want people to be able to get the influence without feeling like you've stolen something. It's totally possible that the book has managed to avoid feeling like fanfiction, but it will be incredibly hard to get that across in a query.

Mark Hubbard said...

Beckony, I never started out using Orwell's characters. I like reading character based literary fiction, and to enjoy a book there must be a character I can like. Thatt was all I was doing - writing such a story. The concept arose from thinking on what would happen if an honest man, simply on principle, refused to be audited. This in term rose from needing to write about what I know, noting I'm a tax accountant. On writing the story, however, 'the rest of me' kicked in, and I realised the characters from 1984 fitted my plot, and themes, and delivered a further depth to those themes.

Regarding those themes, and what I mean by 'the rest of me', then that would take my comments into the political and philosophic, which are inappropriate to Janet's blog and purpose. Suffice to say, my novel sets out first and foremost to write what I hope is a good yarn, with characters that draw the reader in ... For themes, they can then easily be gleaned from my blog:

http://lifebehindtheirondrape.blogspot.co.nz/

And now I'm probably going to shut up so I don't outstay my welcome ;)

alaskaravenclaw said...

I'm not discounting that my novel may be dreadful; I cannot judge my own writing.

Mark, you're right. You can't judge your own writing.

You need other people to read your manuscript, to tell you whether its dreadful or not, and then you need to revise. And revise again. And yet again.

Join a writer's group. Nothing should be going out on submission that hasn't been through numerous critiques and revisions.

Theresa Milstein said...

I love Query Shark. The comments are as interesting as the posts. My theory is the reason QS often chooses ones that don't follow the rules is that it generates this kind of discussion.

When QS says to read through the archives, I think looking at the drafts of the ones that got to yes is more of a learning experience than reading every single query that's ever been posted here. And it's probably a good idea to do so just before submitting here.

vivian rose said...

I felt like this was a query novel for twenty novels instead of just one. The fact that's it's one at 66K is really startling.

Kim Kouski said...

LOL!! Who is the good guy, who is the bad guy, what choices does the good guy have to make? or what happens if the bad guy wins?

Joy Slaughter said...

I learned to limit sentences to 10 words (or if that's too 'rule-y' until you run out of breath) and to limit the number of character names. Going back to count names on my query! Thanks!

Mark Hubbard said...

Superb. I'm turning this into a master class :)

Right, gimmicks out, back to revising original query.

Theresa Milstein said...

This was funny to read and I wondered where it was going. Sorry it didn't work!

Though the premise is implausible because QS is too tough to be intimidated by an audit and I believe all her papers would be in order.

Mark Hubbard said...

Thanks Theresa.

Shawna said...

Even this third revision seems to be adamantly in denial about who the protagonist of the story is. Clearly, it's the woman with the crazy husband who sort of destroys their life with his obstinance. And all that stuff about the audit that comes before getting raided by cops? Boring as all heck. And get a different title. Not many people are intrigued by the word 'audit'.

Theresa Milstein said...

This is a tough one. I agree with QS. The beginning draws us in. Shorten the part about him screwing up and then let us know how his wife deals with the aftermath and works to rebuild her life. That's an intriguing premise. Good luck!

Mark Hubbard said...

Re revision 4x

Thanks Janet (and Theresa). Simple writing for a query is tough. Indeed, a discipline all of its own. Good to see I am getting there, albeit slowly.

Revision five in a couple of weeks, hopefully, though the day job is getting busy.

Mark Hubbard said...

Actually, one point which may be useful for those making heavy weather of their queries.

Even after reading so much of Janet's blog, it had still not hit home to me that the query has to be in the same show don't tell mode of the novel. You'll find barely an adjective attached to a character or conversation tag in my novel. I'm using them in my query thinking with such a small word count, I only have the words to tell the agent what my novel is. I'm finally getting it into my head I have to build the world by the act of showing in the query also. That's why it's so tough.

Having breakfast in New Zealand, listening to the online stream of shortlisted Man Booker authors reading from their novels :)

BonnieShaljean said...


This version is certainly an improvement over the previous efforts - one significant thing for me is that I am now much more interested in the plot and finding out What Happened Next. I agree with Theresa about focusing on the wife/widow and what sounds like a search for who her husband really was - which prompts me care about the characters and wish to know them better. I also second everything Janet said: you don't want your own writing style to be your story's worst enemy. But this is progressing in the right direction so keep at it! Two little things:

Please change that title! Please. Not only is the word "audit" a turn-off, so are numbers. Neither of them convey any image at all. What they do generate - in me anyway - is a feeling: Ugggghhhh. Especially in these economic times, when so many of us are already emotionally pressured by financial anxiety. (I'm not in danger of being audited, but any whiff of tax stuff and I am SO outta there.) I know it's a clever reversal of 1984, but I think this obscure reference is doing your book more harm than good. I'm sure a lot of people would bypass it because of its unexciting (even faintly dread-evoking) name. Other thing is:

> "the first in a trilogy of literary fiction novels"

As well as omitting the 'trilogy' mention, you really need to delete either the word 'fiction' or the word 'novel'. If it's a novel, it's fiction by definition. Suprised the Shark didn't take a bite out of you...

But keep on truckin'. Your hardy spirit has me rooting for you.

Janet Reid said...

Bonnie "literary fiction" is the category. I see literary fiction novel more than I'd like but it's not the instant reject that "fiction novel" is.

And there are only so many things you can chew on at any given time.

Mark Hubbard said...

Thanks Bonnie. I'm slowly getting there. Almost got the fifth revision ready for Janet, albeit my word count has crept back up to 278. (I'll be on 50 and 60 hour weeks in the day job soon, through to February or March, so it's getting harder to keep a focus on this).

Re the title, I know many are against it, though I'm not quite ready to 'let it go' yet :)

Your sentence - "What they do generate - in me anyway - is a feeling: Ugggghhhh. Especially in these economic times, when so many of us are already emotionally pressured by financial anxiety." - would almost convince me to keep it.

But this could well be me doing my King Canute act again.

BonnieShaljean said...

King Canute, LOL! But translate the uncommandable waves into market indifference and lower sales, a needless loss of revenue and readers. No publisher will sit still for that.

With all the thousands of competing books out there, if a title fails to engage the browsing public's passing focus of attention, or arouses active distaste, they're never going to even pick it up to peek inside. So they won't buy or read it. That means they can't recommend it to friends or give it a good review on Amazon & Goodreads or publicise it in their blogs. Over something so easily avoided.

PS: I'll certainly read *your* book, no matter what you decide to call it!

mchandler1953 said...

Didn't Hunter S. Thompson allegedly re-type The Great Gatsby in its entirety to see how it "felt" typing those sentences? No clue if that's actually true but it's the same general idea as the suggestions following revision five. Seems to have worked for him.

BonnieShaljean said...

Joan Didion (one of my all-time faves) did that with Hemingway too, and says that she learned a great deal. She's very illuminating on the subject - some good further reading here:

http://www.niemanstoryboard.org/2013/06/18/whys-this-so-good-no-79-joan-didion-hemingway-and-mathematically-musical-writing/

http://daviddobbs.net/smoothpebbles/how-to-pick-apart-great-writing-joan-didion-on-ernest-hemingway/

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3439/the-art-of-fiction-no-71-joan-didion

http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/did0int-1