Dear Query Shark,
Dee Dee Welles wants to remember the worst day of her life. So when her estranged sister Mercy reaches out to her, letting her in on a secret project that promises “life the way it used to be", Dee Dee hopes it might be a way to find some connection to the past. As it is, with no memory of the plague that decimated the population and the landscape, she will always be an outsider in a world where she desperately wants to belong.
You're zig zagging all over the place here. That first sentence (which is very good) gives us a way in to the story but then you move ahead without any explanation. We need something to understand why Dee Dee will not turn away her estranged sister's overture.
This is the classic illustration for my oft heard plea to "get your sentences in the right order!"
Dee Dee Welles wants to remember the worst day of her life. With no memory of the plague that decimated the population and the landscape, she will always be an outsider in a world where she desperately wants to belong.
SoWhen her estranged sister Mercy reaches out to her, letting her in on a secret project that promises “life the way it used to be”, Dee Dee hopes it might be a way to find some connection to the past.
See the difference?
But when a freak accident in the project reanimates the deadly, flesh-mutating plague, putting the Farm on lockdown and transforming it from secure fortress to death-trap, Dee Dee and her comrades must work together to find a way out. In a desperate attempt to escape, they go underground to avoid not only the infected, but the deadly rat-maze of the city's streets.
62 words in that sentence. Can you hear it clunking? I can.
Don't be afraid of short sharp sentences!
But whenThen a freak accident in the project reanimates the deadly, flesh-mutating plague. puttingthe Farm is on lockdown andtransforming it from secure fortress to death-trap. Dee Dee and her comrades must work together to find a way out. In a desperate attempt to escape, they go underground to avoid not only the infected, but the deadly rat-maze of the city's streets.
I don't understand how streets are infected and why a rat-maze is deadly. You have to be specific. Specifics draw me in to the story. Right now this is just a lot of cliche.
In the grim days that follow, Dee Dee becomes more and more aware that once too often, she is the first one pushed out of the line of fire, and that perhaps the concern for her safety has less to do with love or loyalty than with something unspoken, something sinister. She is valuable cargo to her comrades, her friends, and most of all, to her sister. Mercy needs something in Dee Dee's head, and that something might just be the key to their escape.
Virtual Black is an 86,000 word piece of mainstream fiction set in the crumbling world of the near future. It is my first novel.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
Once I see the entire query I think the fundamental problem is that I don't have any sense of Dee Dee. Themes of alienation and isolation are so common as to be cliché but I don't get why she feels isolated and alone. She's the only one who can't remember the plague. What's the significance of that? Why does it make her an outsider? And why should we care? What's at stake? We know she's "valuable cargo" but why? And what's the downside of being valuable cargo for DeeDee?
If I don't care about the main character, I'm not enticed to read the book.
That's the problem you need to solve here. Moving the sentences around is moving deck chairs on the Titanic. Let's avoid the iceberg first, ok?
Dear Query Shark,
That's all set up. You don't need to fill in all the details in the query. If her sister has a project to make life "the way it used to be" we intuit that life isn't the same as it once was.
Starting with the second paragraph starts the query at a dynamic point, not a static point. That's because you don't have a lot of time here to catch your reader's interest. That means: get to the good stuff.
When her sister Mercy lets her in on a secret project that promises “life the way it used to be,” Dee Dee has little reason to believe that her involvement is due to anything more than family loyalty. And yet, when the plague resurfaces and Dee Dee and her comrades face grisly opposition to their escape from the Farm, she notices that all too often, she is the first one pushed out of the line of fire. As the situation becomes deadly, Dee Dee begins to suspect that the concern for her safety has less to do with love or loyalty than with something unspoken between her comrades, something sinister. Her friends start to resemble guards; her lover, a warden – even her sister seems more and more like a calculating stranger. As the pieces of her past come together, Dee Dee starts to realize that she is anything but ordinary, and that the blank space in her memory might not be so natural, or so blank, after all.
This is still all set up. What's at stake? She's not normal....so what?
Invicta is an 86,000 word piece of mainstream fiction set in the crumbling world of the near future. It is my first novel.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
You absolutely must tell me what's at stake in the novel. The stakes must be clear. Without stakes you have no tension. Without tension, you have no compelling reason for me to read the novel.
Without a compelling reason to read the novel, you have no full request.
What does Dee Dee want? What's keeping her from getting it?
What does Mercy want? What's keeping her from getting that?
Who's thwarting them? Why are they doing that?
These aren't questions you pose in the query, but they're the way to get what's at stake on the page.
I've gone out on a limb here and written this query from the perspective of the heroine, because the novel is also written in first person. (I realize that this is an issue you have addressed in 2008 and 2011) This is a risk I decided to take because my more traditional attempts at a query letter were being rejected or not answered, and I thought this format might transmit, in a small space, the feeling of the novel and my voice. It also felt more natural to write than my earlier attempts. Do you find this query (a) compelling enough to justify first person? (b) One for the trash can? (c) A workable first attempt?
An additional question – sci-fi as a genre. I've described this work as “future fiction” or “future-noir” but these are probably not viable genres for a query letter. The novel is in the style of William Gibson or Michael Crichton – would you list this as sci-fi? Some agents I've encountered are extremely turned off by anything listed as sci-fi, and I want agents to give my work a chance and not just chuck it because of the genre. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to misrepresent the novel. I feel like I'm in a grey area here. Should I just leave it listed as mainstream fiction?
Dear Query Shark,
Zone 3 – Perimeter.
Something is out there in the wasteland, where there should be nothing.
I see the other members of my work unit tense up – hands tight on their semi-automatics, eyes fixed on the viewscreen mounted on the interior wall of the Crusher. They anticipate the worse, even though it's been years since one has been spotted — a Riser, one of the monsters created by the resurrection plague that swept the globe a decade before, decimating the population and the landscape.
I'm not scared, though I should be. No adrenaline rush, no cold sweats. My body just can't react to what it doesn't know.
You see, I don't remember. Post-traumatic amnesia has wiped my slate clean — I'm an outsider, even to myself. Life at the Farm is the only life I know: protein slurries for nourishment, guard units for protection, work assignments from Central Command. It may be bleak but it's the only place I belong.
How would she know it's bleak if it's the only thing she knows?
My sister Mercy, on the other hand, can't let go of the past. We don't talk much, so I am more than curious when she demands a meeting, a feeling that mingles with trepidation as she begins to reveal her years of work on a secret biological project, a plan to make things “the way they used to be.” The project is nearing completion, but she senses that she is being monitored, and not just for protocol purposes. Fearing for her life as well as her years of work, she is determined to expose the project and hatches a plan to sneak me and the 5 members of my work unit into her high-security lab on the outskirts of the Farm.
At first, the promise of a new life in that verdant biotope seems like a glimpse of paradise, but only until the project goes horribly, horribly wrong. With one false step, the plague is back, and I am on the run for my life with my sister and the members of my unit. Not everyone will make it out alive.
A compelling mixture of the bleak urban future of J.G Ballard with the pace of Robert Ludlum, Invicta is an 85,000 word piece of mainstream fiction set in the crumbling world of the near future. It is my first novel.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
You're very right that I've railed against writing a query in the voice of the heroine previously. As far as I can tell here, there's no compelling reason to do so in this query either. It doesn't work.
You write "I thought this format might transmit, in a small space, the feeling of the novel and my voice" but it doesn't. Voice isn't who's speaking. Voice is how you say things: the words you choose, the order, the cadence the rhythm. There's nothing here that lifts this query out of the usual -- sentences that make me think "oh yes!" and that's what you want. This query doesn't sound like a person talking about their life, it sounds like a newspaper account.
When I was six years old, we got a pair of lambs. We made them a special shelter. I petted them, bottle fed them, put on little collars and broke them to lead. I would have slept with them if I could have gotten them past my mother and into the bedroom.
And then they died.
For years afterward I blamed myself. Too much dragging around on the leash. Not enough milk. Too much petting and hugging. It wasn't until I married a man who raised sheep that I realized their passing had nothing to do with me.
Sheep just live to die. Which is true of all living things, I guess. But most of us don't go around looking for ways to expedite the process. Or simply lie down one day and decide, "Oh, heck, why bother getting up? It's just eat and poop, eat and poop. Who needs the hassle?"
The writer is Kari Dell, and the complete blog post is here
The reason I use this as an example is because it shows in shining clarity what voice is: in those four short paragraphs you get a sense of who she is, and you want to read more. [Ok, I might not be objective about this: Kari is one of my clients and I think her writing is glorious and funny and wonderful and further that if anyone disagrees there is something wrong with them but never mind about that now.]
I don't get that sense of who your main character is, or any urge to read more from what you've got here. Thus I vote for (b) on the options above.
And if you've not been getting the responses you hoped for on your query I'm going to suggest either the concept of the novel isn't new or fresh enough to attract the eye of an agent who sees a LOT of queries, or that your protagonist seems to be wrong person. Isn't it the sister who seems more interesting here? (Answer: yes)
And "on the run for her life" is so cliche as to be instant-reject material. Think about the concept for The Fugitive: yes Dr. Richard Kimble was on the run for his life, but there was an over-arching narrative at work as well. He wanted to find the one-armed man who really killed his wife. That's the interesting part of the plot, that piece that keeps this from being a simple chase sequence.
As for category, I think this is what's called dystopian but there's absolutely nothing wrong with saying: Invicta is 85,000 words set in the crumbling world of the near future, and letting the agent decide where it belongs on the shelf.