Monday, July 11, 2016


Questions about this query:
1. Is the f-word taboo in a query? I looked through your archives but didn’t find anything on that, although I also didn’t see anybody else use it.

2. I travel full-time internationally so I don’t have a permanent mailing address or phone number. Will my query suffer for lack of contact details or how would you advise handling this?

Dear Query Shark,

Petty officer third class Simon Aster is a poet, and he’s out for blood. Make no mistake about it – Aster might be serving in Bill Clinton’s Navy but he’s damn sure no believer in America. Hell, his main goals for military service are to get back to Italy and write something destructive, not to mention spending his non-working hours as far from Americans as he can get. Especially cowboys. Aster fucking hates cowboys. So when he’s reassigned to Sardinia, Italy, on the half-female crew of the USS Robert English, everything seems to be going according to plan.

That first line is brilliant. It's brilliant because of the juxtaposition of "poet" and "out for blood" two things that seem quite opposite. Setting the time period with "Bill Clinton's Navy" is very deft.
And then the punch: He's no believer in America.

This is one of the best first paragraphs I've ever seen for enticing me to read on. Do I want to know what happens? Hell yes I do.

As to fucking cowboys, well, that's a problem and you were smart to realize it.
Not everyone is as relaxed about the f-bomb as the Shark.
Thus, unless you absolutely must use it, I'd take it out.
Do you need it here?
No you do not. You've got all guns firing here, you're ok with ramping down the invectives.

But that’s before he finds out he’ll be working in the Crane Shop; and once Aster gets a look at those powerful cranes on the upper decks of the submarine tender, all bets are off. Because as much as he loves poetry, and as much as he loves Italy, he might just love this job more. To make matters worse, Aster discovers that he actually likes the bunch of fucking cowboys who work in the Crane Shop.

Although of course now, with this second use of fucking cowboys, it's clear that it adds a layer of nuance to the description that you really wouldn't find with any other word.
So, I'm going to revise my earlier statement: I think you DO need "fucking cowboys" here and if an agent rejects based solely on the appearance of that word, you know s/he isn't reading for nuance and style, and that tells you something.

Anyway, if Aster can’t find a solution to his anorgasmia none of it’s going to matter. So far as he’s concerned, you can be the best damn crane operator in the Navy but you aren’t much of a man if you’ve got to take it out every time and use your hand to finish – poet or not. At first, Aster believes Italy will heal his inadequacy, then thinks maybe the cranes will, but as the stakes get higher and his disillusionment darker, Aster realizes that his very survival depends on whether or not he can get his pen working. Only, by now, he’s not sure if he should be attacking America or defending it.

Wait what??? WHAT? All of a sudden this is a novel about a guy who can't achieve orgasm?

If "out for blood" is some sort of euphemism for the sex theme, you've outsmarted yourself here. This reminds of the old joke about "get screwed by a beautiful woman" in which the object of the joke is expecting sex only to discover he gets fleeced instead. Only this time, your reader is the object of the joke, and the response is not to laugh, it's to hit the reject button.

What happened to the "doesn't believe in America?" thread?
And if you tell me that cranes is just some sort of metaphor I'm going to weep, because the idea of a novel about cranes on a submarine tender is really cool. 

You totally lose me in this third paragraph, and it's fucking breaking my heart because those first two were as good as I've ever seen.

Either you've lost the thread of the plot here, or you're writing a book I don't want to read. Both options are bad. One you can revise. One is just my bad luck.

Right here is where I'd send the form rejection. (notice I don't even read pages here)

THE CRANES OF KNOSSOS is a work of upmarket fiction in the Künstlerroman tradition. It is complete at 102,000 words. I have included the first five pages below for your convenience.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Clearly you are a very good writer.
I really hope you're writing about something more than a guy's sex life cause I'm just not interested in that and I'm having a hard time thinking of anyone else who would be either.

As to your second question, just include the information that you travel full time at the bottom of your query right before thank you for your time and consideration.

I hope you have a US bank account cause otherwise getting you paid is a pain in the asterisk.


Ardenwolfe said...

Totally agree. First two paragraphs ruled. And then . . . what?

Leila Rheaume said...

Agreed. I was completely blindsided by that third paragraph. I mean, personal tastes are subjective, so I would guess there is an agent out there willing to represent a book about guy overcoming anorgasmia if the writing is strong enough, but I still don't think they'd be thrilled about it coming out of nowhere near the end of the query. It makes it sound like the first 2/3 of the book is about one thing and the last third of the book goes off on a crazy tangent.

If this is just one smallish detail of the character's struggle and not the main focus of the plot, I would suggest keeping the query focused on his inner battle of wanting to be destructive and also wanting to work the cranes. Of hating America but becoming friends with his fellow American crane workers.

If it is the main focus of the plot, then the query probably needs to be reworked, as beautiful as those first two paragraphs are.

Sarah Gilbreath said...

And after reading that third paragraph, those f-bombs take on a whole new meaning...

Karen Nunes said...

The first two paragraphs had me. At the third I said "WTF?" Pun intended.

I also think Leila is right about leaving that paragraph out of your query. If it's a major sub-plot, I'd suggest cutting it.

Your writing is good, IMO, you should consider writing two separate books, for two different audiences.

Leila Rheaume said...

I wanted to add:

"Aster realizes that his very survival depends on whether or not he can get his pen working."

I'm assuming this is being doubly coy—that 'pen' is not actually a euphemism here, and Aster's survival depends on his writing skills. If that's the case, then that's what the third paragraph needs to focus on; whatever situation requires his writing skills to save his life. Also, that's a story I'd want to read.

If pen IS a euphemism, and his survival actually depends on him being able to... orgasm inside a person? That's awfully high stakes for a happy ending, and the query is beyond my advice.

Good luck to the writer and thank you for sharing. Your writing is highly entertaining regardless.

Mister Furkles said...

What's this book about? With 'hate America' and 'out for blood', we are thinking "Now, I'm ready to read what he does and the consequences. But with 'anorgasmia' we are thrown for a loop: is it about some guy's sexual dysfunction?

The query must be clear. About all else answer the question: What's this book about?

And anorgasmia may add tension to the novel and explain some of the actions of the MC, but it doesn't do this for the query. If it is about the MC's sexual dysfunction, then start that in paragraph one. And, as a reader, may I say, I really don't want to read about anorgasmia. We all have our little personal problems which may add color and tension to a novel, but novels are not about little personal problems.

But if the MC were actually a woman who wanted to be a man and hiding the fact from a ship full of cowboy sailors, that could be interesting.

Mark G said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mora Green said...

Maybe because I'm reading Charioteer, but I wondered if the fucking cowboys are the solution to the sex life problem, and if this was some kind of a Navy m/m romance. This is the only way I can get the query to make sense in my head. If that's the case, it's too thickly veiled, giving the impression in the first two paragraphs that the story is something else. And hey, I can get behind an upmarket fiction with m/m romance subplot - just maybe take the focus off the guy's sex problems? And if his sex life problems is what it really is all about, there's market for that too, and I'd maybe reclassify the novel. Hell, I'd read it.

Laina said...

Would perhaps a PO box be a good investment for you, just in general, LW?

Steve Stubbs said...

I agree with Ms. Reid. Whether some guy can climax does not interest me in the slightest. The whole matter was very sub rosa for some time, but now mouths are opening and it turns out lots of older men cannot perform, Until very recently we have been hearing lies about how things get better and better as they get older. Even so that does not a novel make. My reaction to a novel about that would be WTF?

I get the impression you agree and are trying to sneak it onto the agent, I would suggest being up front about this and sneaking the f-word instead. Leave the f-word out of the query and drop it on the reader in the text after you have said reader enticed.

I would also eliminate all the cliches (“Make no mistake about it,” “out for blood,” “going according to plan,” “all bets are off” “to make matters worse,” etc.) I have to give you credit. Some people actually call attention to cliches by surrounding them with quotation marks. You did not do that, and good for you for that. I would encourage you not to use them at all.

I was unable to figure out how he could be surprised at being assigned to a Crane Shop. That is a technical specialty requiring a training program before assignment. I am not a mechanic, so if I were assigned to service jet airplane engines I would be surprised. I would be very surprised. If you put a surprise like that in a novel or query you would have to make it credible to the reader.

I was also confused by the statement that, “as much as he loves poetry, and as much as he loves Italy, he might just love this job more.” The context suggests that this is a conflict, but where is the conflict?

Finally, I was confused by the plot. How can being in Italy or working on cranes cure anorgasmia? What does that have to do with his physical survival? What does that have to do with his dislike for his country and for cowboys? And most of all, WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

I think you may have chosen a subject that is too difficult Lots of women have written memoirs about their struggle with sex addiction. And it’s B-O-R-I-N-G/ You would not think that would be the case, but it’s damn difficult to make that subject come alive, and the reason is almost certainly that interpersonal conflict (conflict with another person) plain works better on the page that intrapersonal conflict (conflict with oneself.)

If I were an agent I would suspect your book has a disorganized plot, that it tries to sneak an uninteresting premise on the reader, that it has more cliches than Carter has pills (pardon the cliche), and that the writing is as weak as Aster;s orgasms. None of that may be true, but that is what the query suggests.

If none of that is true, rewrite the query. If all of it is true, rewrite the novel,

Surrly said...

I second Steve Stubbs' comments.

I'm actually a little surprised QueryShark was so taken with the first two paragraphs.

I'm paraphrasing here but as I recall from the archives of QS it's all about getting plots and stakes on the page.
What does the protagonist want? What's keeping him/her from getting it? What choice/decision does he/she face? What terrible thing will happen if he chooses ____; what terrible thing will happen if he doesn't.

I don't know what the character's problem is until the last paragraph. And then when I find out that's all I find out. I don't get any of the other information that I thought a query (and good story) should have.
What decision does he face? To go to Italy? To work cranes? What?!
What terrible thing will happen if he chooses X? What will happen if he doesn't? I don't know.

How does the character think Italy will heal his inadequacy? And "the stakes get higher"? Really? That flies? The actual plot is full of vague references to stuff happening that contributes little to any detail that I'm looking for in the story.

Steve mentioned the cliches. Isn't that a red flag for any agent?
And yes, what's the conflict between poetry and Italy and his job?

I do think there's some fun stuff in here. I like the juxtaposition of poet and the blood line. I like the curse words because I think they give an idea of the character. And the character has a point of view, which is lovely. But the problem of not orgasming (which I guess is what's going on here) is not interesting enough. And I think to make it interesting I'd need the details of how he's going to achieve success (and they'd better be interesting and/or funny and/or satirically tragic). But I don't get those details at all. I don't know what the character is actually going to do about it except work his job and go to Italy. That's the plot.

Maybe I've misread/misinterpreted some advice that I've gleaned from QS. And I know querying comes down to subjectivity (like a tortuous literary Tinder) But I'm really surprised she was so enamoured with the first two paragraphs at all and that she didn't call out the cliches or lack of plot or lack of stakes or lack of detail or...

Man, I thought I was really getting this whole query thing. Clearly I'm missing something here.

tell me later said...

You might be missing the point a bit, Surrly.

The rules aren't: Get the plot on the page. Show the stakes. Avoid cliches.

The rule is: make the agent want to read more.

All the other advice we talk about is just guidelines for making that happen.

Surrly said...

Tell me later:
Yes, I do realize that is the goal. But if the guidelines don't ring true then querying becomes even more mysterious and fickle. It's like throwing darts in the dark intending to hit a moving target. And in this query the lack of plot and stakes is coupled with cliches and vagueness.

I guess, in reading this site and taking its advice, I'm under the impression that there is a formula for greater success at getting pages read by agents (or at least by this agent in particular. Although I have heard similar advice given by other agents).

So when I see a query that doesn't seem to follow this formula (nay, even commits the cardinal sins the formula touts) and it captures the gatekeeper's attention ("those first two (paragraphs) were as good as I've ever seen") then I'm left scratching my head thinking that the guidelines being presented don't mean much at all.

I think my issue is confusion more than anything else. QS presents guidelines to getting an agent's attention (has criticized many queries that don't follow these guidelines) and then praises (the bulk of) a query that doesn't follow those guidelines.

I'm not trying to be contentious as much as expressing frustration from my confusion. Maybe the takeaway is writing that appeals to someone trumps the practicals (plot/stakes) of a query. And that is the X factor when it comes to querying. If I can dazzle someone with my writing (a feat dependent on other x factors like circumstance, personality, time of day, temper, etc.) then I've won a pass to dazzle them some more, whether I have a plot or not.

I guess I'll stick to plot and stakes since it is something tangible I can do and hope that my writing can do the rest.

Leila Rheaume said...

What tell-me-later said. Rules can be broken if it works. Personally, I feel like the writer's voice and the flow of the writing in those first two paragraphs outweigh the rule about avoiding cliches. That's such a subjective thing. Some readers won't even notice if it's done well; some will develop an eye twitch at each spotted cliche. Neither is wrong. It's an opinion.

Plus, I disagree that the first two paragraphs are lacking plot or detail. The first paragraph states the MC's goal(s). The second paragraph shows us what distracts the MC from his goal, or possibly even changes his goal entirely. The third paragraph should lead into the stakes (let's say, the MC's choice between following his original goal or deciding to follow a new one and the possible consequences of both options), but as stated by The Shark, the query derails after the first two paragraphs. I kind of feel like the lack of stakes was implied by "SPLAT."

As for detail, we can glean quite a bit about the character from the voice alone. We also know he is a poet working as a crane operator "on the half-female crew of the USS Robert English." We know the time frame of the story because of the deft use of "Bill Clinton's Navy." We know the character hates America and cowboys. We know he has been to Italy, wants to go back, and has been assigned to Sardinia. Other than going with a list format, I'm not sure how the writer could have included more detail in two short paragraphs. This much detail without sacrificing voice is pretty impressive to me. The only thing in the first two paragraphs I can see that might be expounded upon is "write something destructive."

I don't think you've misread or misinterpreted any advice. I think the cliches work in the context; you don't. I thought the writer included a generous amount of detail; you didn't. It's subjective (I really like 'torturous literary Tinder' by the way).

Surrly said...

Yeah, Leila,
I guess that was my conclusion too. It's all a kind of Alice in Wonderland way.

And yes, we do disagree...

1st paragraph: His goal: Get back to Italy and write something destructive? (I presume writing something against America or Clinton or ?? (and how is that a goal for military service?) and what does that actually mean 'write something destructive'?). But I guess that's a goal. Not much of one but it could be argued it is a goal. Also, if one of his goals is to get back to Italy then it's already been GIVEN to him by the end of the first paragraph.

2nd paragraph: Distraction: he loves his job so much he can't write? Not really seeing that one. This is not a distraction in my opinion. Or a problem since he doesn't really HAVE to write at all.

I understand subjectivity, but I guess I feel the take on this query is so subjective it undermines the logic of how to write a query in the first place.

I know, I'm beating a dead horse (take that, mon petit cliche!) and I'll bury it and move on.

Leila Rheaume said...

From the information in the opening paragraph, I imagined the MC as a wannabe reverse Thomas Paine of sorts (also not necessarily the sanest fellow), if that makes sense. Who knows? That might be me reading too much into it.

By distraction I don't just mean the MC's new job. He also realizes he "actually likes the bunch of fucking cowboys who work in the Crane Shop." That's the important bit. It compromises his wrathful attitude toward Americans and his goal of writing something destructive about them/American society. He would presumably have to deal with his beliefs being challenged.

There are other queries in the Sh-archives that broke the rules of querydom and worked. This one comes to mind:

Still, I wouldn't despair too much. Just because a query that breaks the rules catches an agent's attention doesn't mean one that follows them suddenly won't. It's a risk to break the rules, and the rules are there because most of the time breaking them doesn't work.

And now I swear I'm done defending a query that admittedly doesn't work for me (That last paragraph...holy plot tangent, Batman!).

Surrly said...

Thanks, Leila.
I appreciate your perspective.