Wednesday, June 8, 2016


Dear Query Shark,

The only thing Walt Dempsy’s father left him, before getting locked up for good, was the ability to take a punch. Which comes in handy when you are the only guy who won't play along in a dying beach town run by vicious drug dealers and dirty money.

I like this. It engages my interest and while my sox are still on my toes, this looks good.

A once epic brawler Walt now spends his nights working a security gig at the hospital, and his mornings flirting with Piper the bartender over breakfast beers. It had been years since he’d had been in a real fight, or since anyone had noticed him at all.

What gives this paragraph heft is that last phrase "since anyone noticed him at all." Right there we know a lot about Walt. In fact, this feels like the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks.

Everything changed the night the nor'easter storm hit and Walt was the sole witness to a deadly car crash. Inside the burning wreckage he finds a man drawing his last breath and a small fortune in drug money. In a desperate moment Walt steals the money from the burning car and sets off a chain of events that force him down a dangerous road filled with drugs, dirty cops, con men, and deranged killers.

I'd change Walt was to Walt is. I have a fondness for queries in the present tense because I think it pumps up the energy, and in a short form like a query it's not too tiring for the reader.

Now we've all seen this plot before. There've been novels, and movies with this. But, because I like the writing here, I'm going to keep reading.

As he struggles to cover his tracks from that night an old flame shows up in town with fresh hell in tow. She was blonde now, and calling herself Eve, but she was still the same beautiful troublemaker from when they were teenagers.

And again She is a blonde now is much better.
And she is still the same.

And the reason I'm glad I kept reading is that lovely turn of phrase "fresh hell in tow."

This is the kind of thing I look for in a query: turns of phrase, word choices that give me confidence that even with a plot I've seen, you're going to write so well I won't be able to put the manuscript down.

Eve had a desperate need for money and the dangerous man he was in his youth to protect her. The dirty money was more than enough to make all her troubles go away. The only problem is he can’t show a dime of it without raising the suspicions of Shudo, the deranged and ruthless drug kingpin, and risking certain death.

Now Walt is faced with an impossible choice: dig up the violent man he used to be and risk blowing the lid off his safe but stagnant life for a shot with the girl who got away, or stay in the shadows and watch his world slowly fade away around him.

And I'm in. At this point, I'm reading pages and PRAYING they're good.
Your query has done her job.

COLD SNAP is a complete, 73,000 word thriller I would describe as "No Country for Old Men" meets "The Town". Thank you for your time and consideration.

Now, if you really wanted to knock my socks off, you'd mention that "The Town" is based on Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves, and then mention that you think it's an example of a perfect novel, which I might have raved about once  or twice

If you've only seen the movie, stop reading right now, and go order the book and read it.

Now back to the query.

This query works not because it's fresh and new but because the writing is good. It catches my attention. There are lovely turns of phrase. 

If the book needs work on the plot that's a whole lot easier than trying to fix the writing.


JeffO said...

Totally agree about "fresh hell in tow." I was already sitting up, and that made me sit up more!

nightsmusic said...

Quote: A once epic brawler Walt now spends his nights working a security gig at the hospital, and his mornings flirting with Piper the bartender over breakfast beers. It had has been years since he’d had he's been in a real fight, or since anyone had has noticed him at all.

Janet's right, this one is great! But the switching between present and past tense for me doesn't work as well as keeping in all in present tense. Present tense in this instance makes me as the reader feel like I'm in the action, the story.

Good query! And good luck!

Colin Riley said...

Thank you everyone for your feedback, and a very heartfelt tip of the hat to our Shark Overlord for hosting such a useful site. The archives were insanely helpful in getting my query letter to this point!

Colin Riley said...

One more thing ...
As a Boston native, I have to agree that Chuck Hogan's "Prince of Thieves" is a wicked good book! It opens with a quote from a Charlestown native that really stuck with me, “I'm mighty proud of where I come from. It's ruined my life, literally, but I'm proud."

I can really identify with that kind of conflicted love for a place. That “blue collar Boston” world from Chuck Hogan’s or Dennis Lehane’s many brilliant books always felt grounded in a lot of truth to me. It was a hard place to survive sometimes, especially in the winter, but I still affectionately refer to Boston as “home” even though I haven’t lived there in more than a decade. Truth is the pain fades, but that pride never really goes away. I did my best to make sure I worked the spirit of that into the world of COLD SNAP.

Steve Stubbs said...

One comment: I have this idea that thrillers should be fast paced. And I have this idea that short sentences speed up the pace. Consider this:

You wrote: “Now Walt is faced with an impossible choice: dig up the violent man he used to be and risk blowing the lid off his safe but stagnant life for a shot with the girl who got away, or stay in the shadows and watch his world slowly fade away around him.”

That entire paragraph is a single sentence. If you broke this sentence up, you would get:

“Now Walt is faced with an impossible choice. He can dig up the violent man he used to be, If he does he gets a shot with the girl who got away. But he’ll risk blowing the lid off his safe but stagnant life. The alternative is to stay in the shadows and watch his world slowly fade away around him.”

BTW it seems like a false choice to me. How could “stay in the shadows and watch his world slowly fade away around him” be a choice for anyone? It seems like “blowing the lid off his safe but stagnant life” would be something he would feel compelled to do, not an “impossible choice.” I see this character as being dragged to his fate like Oedipus, not struggling with an “impossible choice.” An Oedipus type story can really work. In THE GODFATHER Mario Puzo has Michael Corleone opt out of the Corleone Crime Family. He is not the eldest son anyway, and he wants a conventional life. When his brother is murdered, Michael becomes the eldest son. When there is an assassination attempt on his father’s life, Michael is forced heroically to fend off a hit team without weapons and almost alone. When his father dies he has to assume leadership to protect his father’s friends and associates. In the end the fellow who opted for a respectable life is the new Don Corleone.

If you can write as well as Mario Puzo or Sophocles, I want to be your first customer.

abnormalalien (Jamie A. Elias) said...

I like the writing. "Fresh hell in tow" caught my attention and made me snicker a bit. Otherwise, I think I'm just not the intended audience for this story.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I want to read this book.

I love the writing though I think it might need some tweaking. When I read "fresh hell in tow," I was hooked because it's entertaining.

I don't agree with Steve Stubbs that thrillers have to have short sentences. They have to make me want to read fast. Sure, fast paced scenes go faster with short phrases but one outrageously run on sentence in the middle of a bunch of short ones will quicken the pace. Lee Child does this.

This year I've read lots of urban fiction, drug dealers, killers, superhuman gansta. One flaw I find in lots of the urban fiction is the lack of humour. Cold Snap sounds like it has that touch of humour I like.

Lennon Faris said...

I like how the query tells a lot about the protagonist's character / personality with situations rather than adjectives. I feel like I know him, and like him. And you still fit the story plot into a succinct query! I definitely agree with the present tense; it would bring the action to the foreground.

Irene Troy said...

For me, this query is a perfect example of how a good query can change everything. Often I read queries where the plot sounds too much like the standard stereotype story and wonder why anyone would want to read the book. The story -- as told here -- is one I've read many times. But the writing is unique and original, thus stirring my interest in the story. The protagonist may face a common challenge, but in an original manner. If the query is this interesting, I would love to read the full story. Well done and a great example for the rest of us. As has been said by many people, many times, there are few unique stories, just unique storytelling.

RachelErin said...

I was impressed by the characterization and pacing of this one. The first few paragraphs pulled me in, even though it's a genre I only read sometimes (don't usually seek it out, but take reccs).

I'm interested in the fact that no one mentioned the blah description of Eve - blond...beautiful troublemaker. Those phrases are the weakest part for me, and I know we've had rants recently about stereotypical descriptions of female characters. Maybe the halo from the great phrase (fresh hell in tow) cast a glow over the flawed flatness of the rest of it?

If I were going to suggest one thing, as a reader who is easy to turn away from this genre, make sure your Eve is as complex and round as Walt, and please show it.

Why did she dye her hair? What kind of trouble does she make, and WHY? Is she a prankster? Running away? Always making things worse when she tries to fix them? Those are things I would work into it, so it's not generic. As it stands I would have put the book back on the shelf at her description.

Good luck!