Saturday, January 16, 2016


 When writing the query I had realized there was no possible way to write a succinct summary for so many timelines and character lines for (what I thought) was a finished 190,000 word novel. then, BAM, I realized, holy crap!

 Easily understood afterwards, of course, but, once I separated the timelines and characters, splitting and parsing it between seven (future) books to force it under the 100,000 limit- It all made sense.

 Hindsight is a dork we all know. But it took the Query Shark and many edits to realize what I had to do. Thank you for that. 
Dear Query Shark:

A seasoned captain. A passionate coman. Their duties performed from necessity, their choices from personality.

This doesn't tell me anything. It's the portentous voiceover in a movie trailer or the tag line on a book cover.

It doesn't serve any purpose in a query and worse, with coman, it's confusing. I don't have a clue what coman means. It sounds like a furry creature in a forest, maybe kin to a koala.

What appears to them in the languishing days of mineral extraction will test a captain's resolve for stability. It will test a coman's choices of personal humility.
And this is more of the same. Except now I'm thinking the coman is perhaps a robot of some kind?

 Prematurely set back towards Earth, Captain Quanta Strohm Lathif, a dutiful and proud veteran of Our World's Pride Fleet, and Coman Whittman Stahl, the captain's energetic subordinate, the crew of ship Yarppah bring with them an unfilled minera hull; three less baybots; Myryan, a first contact species, who has succumbed to his wounds in their botbay, and his trailing Avayrian ship bouncing off their tail.
There are 65words in this sentence. If you can speak them aloud without drawing breath, I'd think you're part fish. A sentence in a query should be fewer than 20 words as a general guideline--you should be able to say the whole sentence in one breath. Short form work like query letters benefit from succinct sentences.

In addition you have FIVE named characters in ONE sentence. The CAPS here are to emphasize this is too many. (The five are: Captain QSL, Coman WS; the ship; the first contact alien, his ship)

You've already told us Captain QSL is a "seasoned veteran". You don't need to repeat it. Do we need to know the name of the fleet? Do we need to know the name of the ship? (Hint: no)

You've got words I don't recognize: minara; baybot, botbay. Obviously in science fiction you'll have new words but it's really helpful if you keep those to a minimum in the query letter cause you don't have room to provide much context. And baybot/botbay is just begging for confusion in the novel, let alone the query.

In SF (and historical fiction) novels (let alone queries) you want to make double dog sure your prose is as lean as possible. Include only that which is absolutely necessary because you've got to save room for all the world-building, and providing context so your reader can intuit what botbay, baybot and minara means.

I sort of get the idea here: there's ship coming home with aliens on board.  The only thing I'm wondering about is why they're coming home early (a question you don't address at all.)

 On Earth, Jerrison Glanders, an appointed OWP Watcher under the Minders, languishes day to day in his office. As sudden as his coffee turns over on his desk and spills to the floor, his demeaning minute by minute transtanking of OWP's captains peaks and emulsifies from his life's journey into becoming a Watcher and the personal change he must now follow.
I literally do not understand what "his demeaning minute by minute transtanking of OWP's captains peaks and emulsifies from his life's journey into becoming a Watcher and the personal change he must now follow." means. This is death in a query. If I'm skimming along and I don't understand a sentence, I assume I was reading too quickly. I go back to the start of the paragraph and read again slowly. If I don't get it the second time, I'll look for things like a missing word, a misspelling, some sort of error that will allow me to figure out the sentence. If I come up empty on the third time  I stop reading.

In addition we now have two more names (Glanders, Minders) to remember. This makes seven. That's four if not five too many.

 Looking for change and leniency of both himself and those captains, Mr. Glanders sets out for a deal of reciprocity beginning an off Earth search for the scheming clandestine habitual needs of Senior Watcher R. M. Fahreel, who's multi-world rock collection is as pertinent and bonded to his personality as a rattle and blanket is to a child.

And there's eight. 
And bonded to his personality doesn't make sense. A good metaphor illuminates something, it doesn't make me try to figure out how you can bond something to an abstract concept.

 It is still a pang upon my gritted teeth to dispel and distill within this query letter from moving beyond a single page and flagrantly slipping into the entirety of a second novel.

This sentence is gibberish.  I hope you can see that when you look at it again. 

 My science fiction novel, CASIMIR LURE, lies in a future where there is no dystopia, only the political and scientific push that we as a species look to attain. The novel is completed (foil your prime limits) at 95,000 words. the first book of a six novel series, THE CASIMIR EFFECT, is in the works for continued enticement with an additional 130,000 words of story and additional character development within.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

I've read some long SF novels in my day. I've even requested fulls for novels that clocked in at 190K. I'm not intimidated by length and (given the length of City on Fire by Garth Risk Halberg, a BEA Book buzz novel in 2015) I'm confident long novels are making a comeback.

The problem here is not the length. The problem is I don't understand what you're talking about. I don't have any idea of what problem the captain faces. I don't understand who the main character is, or, if there are multiple focal characters,  what the precipitating incident is. 
Charles Dickens is the master of long-ass novels with multiple focal characters. If you consider Bleak House as an example, Dickens sets the reader down in London, and then describes the lawsuit that is the precipitating incident for the novel:

Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.

So, yes, it's entirely possible to have a long-ass book described in 221 well-chosen, elegant words.  And if you say scoff and say "yea, well that's Dickens!" all I say to you is: that's exactly what you want to aim for.

And if you're thinking it can't be done in this day and age, and in your specific category, well, here's Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin:

Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.

Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.

The precipitating incident: trouble is brewing, the cold is returning. There's not a lot of specifics here but you get the sense of the novel: it's a grand adventure.   And notice: only ONE made up word: wildling, but the reader can easily intuit they are wild beasts/men/creatures of some sort.

As your query stands right now it would be rejected after the second paragraph but even if you polish this up, I worry about the novel. Remember, the purpose of a query is to entice me to read the novel.  A perfect query, with pages that go splat isn't any more useful to you than a bad query.

Time to get some outside eyeballs on the manuscript. A good crit group or beta reader is probably the best next step rather than simply revising and resending the query. 


Theresa Milstein said...

I also thought this query too long. But I can see how it might be difficult to stick with one main character in a story like this. Though it must be possible. I believe a query could be written for the original Star Wars by focusing on Luke Skywalker. I like that QS shows how long novels and multi-character stories can be explained in few words.

As for the other problems, I agree that a beta reader is needed.

nightsmusic said...

I had absolutely no idea what was going on here. I think the Shark was very generous in her comments. I would not have been so nice.

This is a mess. You say you have 7 novels written. You've tried to cram every single one of them into this query. Don't do that. Start with the first novel. I don't care about characters that come into play in numbers 2 - 7 right now. There must be one central character here that you can focus on and write the query for.

Your first and second paragraphs make me go, meh. There's nothing there to entice me. Nothing. So my reaction to those is, so what?

The third paragraph was mind boggling and too confusing. By then, I was ready to stop reading the rest. And this is where the suicide is. Right here. Because if your novel is written in any way like this paragraph, you've just committed publishing suicide.

Get into a good beta reading group. Find a good critique partner, there are several of both out there. And when they comment or criticize things, take it to WRITING heart. NOT personally. And then try the things they mention. It's no use using either if you discount and ignore all of the comments. Some will work, some won't, but you'll never know if you don't try.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

My biggest issue here is that I don't know what's going on. Some people are setting out an adventure, I would guess. My suggestion would be this: rewrite every sentence in your query as if you were writing it for simple wikipedia. Then look it over from top to bottom and ask yourself: is the substance here enough to get someone interested? It doesn't matter how good (or bad) the writing is if there aren't enough clues to the plot of the novel.
Then, I would recommend cutting the sentences that aren't important and adding a couple plot hooks - probably related to a single main character - using the same simple English. After you've got the substance down, then rewrite it in your own style.
Just as an FYI, I would classify myself as a probable member of your target audience: I enjoy sci-fi and world building, I LOVE characters who are in the military (or something similar) and I enjoy fictional politics. That said, I really need to know what the stakes are. Good luck on the revision!

E.Maree said...

Yeah, I love science-fiction but I was completely and utterly lost with this one. It felt like more vague theme than plot ("there is no dystopia, only the political and scientific push that we as a species look to attain" bwuh?) and the interjection of voice into sections that should have been plain and informative for irritating and confusing ("foil your prime limits" again, huh?).

You also really, really don't want to include so much about THE CASIMIR EFFECT, your sequel, in the query. A query's purpose is to sell the attached manuscript, you don't want to reference another 130k words on top of this 95k, and you certainly don't want to scare off an agent with six sequels!

I'd cut all reference to the sequels entirely. It's acceptable to put "CASIMIR LURE is a 95,000 word science fiction novel with series potential." if you feel strongly compelled to mention the sequels... but honestly it's unnecessary.

That's all your need, though. Your query, and then: "CASIMIR LURE is a 95,000 word science fiction novel with series potential. Thank you for your time and consideration." Spend your words on the query, not the sign-off.

dellcartoons said...

> three less baybots;

Shouldn't that be three fewer baybots? You don't want to make even a minor grammar error in your query.

I read and watch plenty of SF. I grew up on Asimov, Bova, and Heinlein. But this query seems more like a spoof of SF than like a real story.

I would avoid using numerous unfamiliar words and unexplained concepts, particularly in a query aimed at a non-SF fan.

Irene Troy said...

There have been times when I've wondered why Janet (or for that matter anyone) says she would stop reading mid-way through a query. My curiosity might compel me to keep reading, almost like watching a train wreck: you know it's terrible, but you have to look anyway. But here I fully understand the "I would stop reading here" comment. I read and re-read the first paragraph and then went on to the rest of the query. At the end I felt so confused I went back for a third read. Where's the story? What story is being told?

Then there is that confusing mess of words about the struggle to keep the query to a single page. Major mistake there! I would suspect such a comment would repel many an agent. If the writer cannot distill the essence of the story to a couple of paragraphs, I'd worry about wordiness in the book. I'm often guilty of wordiness and understand the challenge. But this is why you seek knowledgeable beta-readers. My beta-readers helped me identify passages where too many words confused rather than informed. For the author: despite the disappointment you may feel, the advice given can help you improve not only the query, but your book. Please, follow the excellent advice and find a good writer's group where you can get intelligent feedback.

Her Grace, the Duchess of Kneale said...

I speak Sci-Fi and I understand epic storylines. I had to parse this a few time until I noticed that there was the potential of a good query in here:

Cap'n Lathif comes back from a mission with less-than-stellar results. His reputation is also less-than-stellar. Also, everyone can smell his desperation.

Office Gumby Glanders, bored with pushing paper, sees an opportunity for profit and adventure with Cap'n Lathif. If they head off to bring back some space rocks, maybe Glanders' office life might improve. Middle Manager Fahreel loves fancy space rocks. If Office Gumby Glanders can bring him back some doozies, then maybe he'll give Glanders more interesting work/a promotion/a raise/a kiss.

However, the language to communicate this info is rather literary, bordering on poetic. While the novel may be like this (and this is why agents request sample pages if the query hooks them), to use it in a query defeats the purpose of communicating succinctly.

This query would benefit greatly from the KISS principle. Simpler vocab, clearer sentences, that sort of thing. Also, you'll want to pare the plotline of the first book past the bare bones down to stick figures.

Who is your absolutest main character? I suspect it's Office Gumby Glanders.

What does he want most of all? I suspect it's something to do with work, because it sounds like the way to solve his issue is to collect rocks for Middle Manager Fahreel.

Whatever he wants, he sounds pretty desperate. Otherwise, why hire Cap'n Lathif? Now, I could be completely off the mark here, because this query was rather obfuscated.

1. Who's the main character?
2. What does s/he want the most?
3. What happens if s/he fails?

That is what your query should cover. Introduce us to one person, make us sympathise with their plight and have us want to know how they solve their issues. This is what hooks us.

Also, a query is tell, not show. The previous example was show. Yes, I know what a baybot is, and that they're stored in a botbay, and I wish I had those three missing ones because my garage needs cleaning, but it's not something we need in a query letter.

I recommend rewriting the query so it's more told, not shown.

P.S.: I'm confident long novels are making a comeback.

Oh yes, thank you! I love reading them, I love writing them. If done right, you don't notice their length, but the satisfaction of being able to spend a long time in an enjoyable world can't be beat. No wonder we love Harry Potter so much.

Lennon Faris said...

I am having some trouble understanding the actual English of the sentence structures. I would drastically shorten the sentences (and make sure the structures are logical), trying just one subject and verb for most. I have recently been working on a query letter and understand the desire to put more of your story in there than necessary. When writing, I had to keep chanting to myself the main points of a query: who is the main character, what is their goal, what/ who is stopping them from achieving that. I think a lot of research into what to include (and not include) in a query letter would be a good idea. Best of luck.

DLM said...

(dellcartoons, on the less/fewer question - nope: - by the Arrant Pedant, whom I ADORE:


Like Lennon Faris, I had some issues with the language usage here, and I also found the "oh woe is me the querier" would-be joke a very iffy proposition. It is better than groveling (perhaps), but this is still a business letter, not a chance to display your authorial Quirkier-Than-Thou cred. Get the job done ... which unfortunately this query doesn't. My novel was 168K the fist time I queried it, I learned and pared, and once it was 128K, I got feedback from a very good agent indeed that I'd cut too close to the bone. It ended at about 134K.

My query was about 260 words. A hair longer than The Shark advises, but no so far out of the ballpark as to raise a Sharkbrow (far more dangerous than Spockbrow). This is our JOB. If we can't do one part, it isn't unreasonable for an agent to think maybe we can't do other parts of it.

Three attempts to read some of these sentences/paragraphs is more than I could manage, and will be two more than many agents will provide. I'd marginally disagree with Her Grace, in that to me nothing about this query sounds literary or poetic, only self-conscious. But her main point resounds! "Keep it simple, stupid" doesn't actually equate to "Keep it stupid" - and all this verbiage makes it feel like the querier is trying to look smart by overlocuting. Take it from an overlocutor from WAY back: don't.

nightsmusic said...

This is our JOB. If we can't do one part, it isn't unreasonable for an agent to think maybe we can't do other parts of it.

On a side note? I really wish we could nominate headers from here because this one is perfect! And perfectly true.

DLM said...

Aw gawrsh, nightmusic. Now not only am I not stupid, I'm a blushing fool. You're making my day.

Sarah Gilbreath said...

I agree with what the other commenters have said, but rather than simply echo them, I'd like to suggest a new tactic for sentence structure.

To the author: are you a gamer? In many video games, your character has to earn points (or stars, or coins) in order to unlock a certain power-up. You must have those points to activate the power-up, and once you use it, you have to collect another round of points to get another one.

Try thinking about sentence structure in the same way: simple and compound sentences are your points, and complex and compound/complex sentences are your power-up. Each power-up costs three points. This means you must write three simple or compound sentences to "earn" a complex or compound/complex one. Once you use the power-up, you must write three more simple or compound sentences to earn another.

This may feel childish to you at first, but it will make your paragraphs much, much easier to read.

Jeanne DuBois said...

Thank you, DLM, for the comment and the site of the Arrant Pedant. I read the entry for Less and Fewer and promptly subscribed!

Kae Ridwyn said...

I'm extremely late in commenting, I know, but I just wanted to comment on Sarah Gilbreath's idea of treating sentence structure usage as a game, with points and power-ups. What a unique take on it! Thank you, Sarah!

abnormalalien said...

Sarah what an excellent idea. I see a lot of this type of writing in academia. I've become jaded. I don't find it poetic; I find it annoying. If I'm sitting here using sentence diagramming to figure out what a writer is trying to say, then you can bet I'm also getting frustrated.

This does bring me to another idea for the author. If you don't know sentence diagramming, try looking over the Wikipedia page for "sentence diagram." Especially in a short form like a query letter, I would expect this to be an easy task. _who_/_did_/_what_\_why_

For example, your sentence: “Prematurely set back towards Earth, Captain Quanta Strohm Lathif, a dutiful and proud veteran of Our World's Pride Fleet, and Coman Whittman Stahl, the captain's energetic subordinate, the crew of ship Yarppah bring with them an unfilled minera hull; three less baybots; Myryan, a first contact species, who has succumbed to his wounds in their botbay, and his trailing Avayrian ship bouncing off their tail.”

Like QS said, I can not parse this in one breath and it took multiple read-throughs to get the gist. Your diagram would be something like this:
_QSF and WS and crew_ / _bring_ /_(stuff they didn't bring?) and an alien and an alien ship_
That's not unreasonable...except that then you have to diagram all the modifiers which is EVERY OTHER WORD in this sentence. My count, that's something like 42 modifiers/extra objects/other stuff that I can't remember how to diagram.

Please author, start simple then fancy it up. But don't obfuscate it in the process of making it pretty. You have an excellent vocab and a story with promise, keep trying!