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.


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. 

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 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.


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.

Thursday, January 17, 2013



                                                             INSPECTOR MA LI IS BITTER.

                                 One swing of an enemy's sword destroyed his career as a cavalry officer.

                            No longer fit to fight, demoted to serve as a Police Inspector, he loathes his new
                          post, hates dealing daily with unpleasant people who have done unpleasant things.

                                                          INSPECTOR MA LI IS FRIGHTENED.

                           His family estate lies deep in enemy territory. He has no fortune.  When he rides
                           to his residence, he gives money and food to former soldiers, now beggars. If he
                                                   fails as a Police Inspector, he may join them.

                                                 ONE CORPSE MORE WILL BE ONE TOO MANY.

                            Within weeks of his appointment, three bodies are pulled from canals in his
                     Police Sector. And then, with the chaos of the New Year only weeks away, a teen-age
                                       girl is found hanging. A fourth corpse is one corpse too many.

                                                       PLAY IT SAFE? OR ROLL THE DICE?

                             Overwhelmed by preparations for the New Year celebration, his regular staff
                                                 cannot investigate the case of the hanging girl.

                                    HIS FATHER HAD BEEN A GAMBLER. LIKE FATHER LIKE SON.

                              Inspector Ma violates Imperial regulations, appointing an ad hoc squad to
                                                      investigate the case of the hanging girl.

                                                              WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?

                        Inspector Ma has no time to vet the men he chooses - a clerk with an abusive son,
                                 a Private who once worked for criminal gangs, and a Corporal hiding a
                           deadly secret.  When the Inspector learns the deadly secret he must roll the dice
                                                again.  The Corporal is the key to solving the case.

                                                            CAN HE DEFEAT THE ENEMY?

                       The squad's prime suspect is the son of a high official.  If Ma Li does not solve the
                          case of the hanging girl, he may lose his post:  Solving it will pit him against a
                                    powerful enemy, bent on aborting the investigation at any cost.

                                                                 THE HANGING GIRL
                                         is a police novel in 103,850 words, set in the capital of
                                        China during the Mongol invasion of the late 13th century.



                                                   THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.


this is, hands down, the screwiest format I've seen in a query in a long long time.
It violates every rule in the book, makes up some more rules and violates those too.
It's a mess.

And I'm requesting pages.

Try not to weep with frustration dear reader. Thus was it always so: queries must do ONE thing and one thing only--entice me to read on.

And I do want to read pages from a novel with this setting. This is good clean crisp writing. I see who the main guy is, what problems he has, what choices he faces.

Lousy format and bizarre set up aside, this is good writing.

BUT if you'd like to increase your chances that your query doesn't get tossed for looking like a query for a picture book, remember: left justify your margin, ragged right.

 No bolding. No fancy centering.

PLAIN is good.

ENTICING however is best.