Sunday, March 18, 2018

#301-Revised once

Dear Query Shark:

She-wolf is a nickname twenty-eight-year-old Mina Hearst earned as one of the world's highest paid assassins. She spends her free time adding to her Louboutin shoe collection and relaxing in bubble baths, but lives for the pleasure of the kill. When she's told she'll have a partner on her next assignment, taking out men at the head of a billion-dollar human and drug trafficking operation, a partner sounds like a good idea. Until she meets his ego.

Well, ok, this isn't bad, but it's not all that interesting either because it relies on cliches (shoes and baths) This feels very superficial and that's not good in the first paragraph of a query.


Mina's new partner Cy looks like a Greek god and knows it. He's the world's most elite assassin, and Mina's instincts mean nothing to him. When they're sent to a guarded island to eliminate their final target--a trigger-happy pedophile with kidnapped children and a collection of nuclear missiles--Cy insists they do things his way. Mina isn't sold on his overcomplicated strategy, but she won't be able to fight off the island's guards without his help.

I'd stop reading here. You can have one or the other but not both: pedophiles OR nuclear missiles. Like the first paragraph this feels superficial. You need a bad guy; here's a pedophile. You need to raise the stakes; here's a nuclear missile.

The everlasting irony of fiction and story telling is that what's not true has to feel true. This feels like a cartoon.


When Cy refuses to compromise, and prepares for their mission with whiskey cocktails and a power nap, Mina knows she must rely on her instincts to get the job done. Soon after going in, the whiskey magnifies Cy's ego, and his reckless behavior almost exposes them. If Mina can't convince him to follow her lead, they won't survive, and their target will bomb the first country his finger touches on his spinning globe.

The plot is that Mina has to convince Cy to follow her lead? Well, that does have the ring of real life, but it doesn't really work here.

The villain is utterly abstract.
There's no sense of a plot.
The characters are not fully developed.

KILLER IN HEELS is a 70,000-word suspense novel. It will appeal to fans of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise series, and Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series.


Mr and Mrs Smith is a movie; it's not an ideal comp for that reason, but also because it's old: 2005. Modesty Blaise is worse; it was published in 1965. 


To be effective comps must be above-all CURRENT, that is no more than two to three years old.
Stephanie Plum first appeared in One For the Money in 1994. I still remember where I was when I read it.

You don't know what you're writing here.You've got a cartoonish Modesty Blaise paired with a highly competent Mrs. Smith, and some New Jersey flibbertigibbet who blows up cars. In a novel about pedophiles and nuclear bombs.



You're probably closest with the Plum novels; go back and read them and see what the plots are. My guess is (and I haven't read one in 15+ years even though I liked them very much) is they were not ever about pedophiles or nuclear bombs.



What you've done here is the classic over reach of new writers: if one is good, three must be three times as good. Restraint is what you need here.  You don't need pedophiles OR nuclear bombs for a taut plot. You don't need to be the world's best assassin to be interesting. You don't need to be a Greek God to be handsome (or a dunderhead.)

Nuance is really important in a well-crafted book.

I don't see any nuance here.  Even in the Stephanie Plum books, there's nuance and restraint. Go back and read them all again, this time with your writer's notebook by your side. Take notes on how Janet Evanovich describes her characters.  Characters come alive when they seem real; I can remember ever single character in those first few books. That's your goal.  And not just here in the query: in the book as well.

When you're reading to study craft, it may help if you treat it like studying. That is, not sitting on your couch with your cat but sitting at your desk. Or better, in the library. The good thing is: this reading is real work. You don't need to feel even slightly guilty for reading ten novels in a row.

 ---------------
ORIGINAL QUERY
Dear Query Shark:


Twenty-eight-year-old Verity Hearst fears being single forever, but solitude isn't so bad, not with a loaded Springfield 1911-A1 pistol and a warm cup of tea to keep her company. She has killed over eighty criminals as one of the world's elite assassins. It's a reputation she has proudly earned alone.


When I see the name Verity, my mind instantly turns to Code Name Verity, a darn good book published a couple years back. Sort of like any character named Ishmael makes me think of that book about the whale.  If you want me to think of Code Name Verity, you have. If you don't, you might think about the names you choose.



And any woman who thinks a warm cup of tea is good company sounds like an idiot. If you're trying for light hearted, you've missed the mark. Books, a cat, even a daily soap opera would be less frothy.


Verity's manager Enoch is her only link to the mysterious company she works for. When he tells her she'll have a male partner on the biggest assignment of her life, taking out three men at the head of a billion-dollar human and drug trafficking operation, she wonders if her employer is doubting her abilities. All she knows is she must maintain her reputation, or die trying.

Really? Why? She's earned her reputation (paragraph one) but we have no sense that it's her entire sense of self-worth (die trying.)

This is hyperbole, and it's death in a suspense novel. A suspense novel is a very delicate creation that must hold our attention, suspend our disbelief and make sense. It's a hat trick of a novel, and a writer can't miss a step, or it will all come crashing down.


Verity's new partner Cy thinks he's the world's greatest assassin. He knows more than she does about everything, including how to pour a cup of tea properly. Doing her job with this smartass doubting her every move is going to be a lot harder than she imagined.


This is so jarring I'm sort of dumbfounded. Up until now we've had a lady assassin with a tea fetish who takes her work too seriously, now we have some guy who's a smart ass.  The tone went from serious (if over wrought) to smartass.  My head is spinning.

And I've stopped reading.
This is where I hit "thanks but no thanks."  

For starters there's not a hint of plot. What does Verity want? What does she care about? What's keeping her from getting what she wants? 

What does the antagonist want? Who IS the antagonist? What does the antagonist care about? (For an exquisite portrayal of an antagonist look no further than Omar in Season One of the The Wire.)

There's no reason to care about Verity at all. Cy is literally one dimension. No one is enticing.

KILLER IN HEELS is a 70,000-word novel of suspense.
There's no suspense.

I would say I have experience as an assassin, but that might get me in trouble.
This is the best line of the query.

I chose to contact you because you are looking for female-centric thrillers.
A novel of suspense is not a thriller, neither is a comic crime novel. You're telling me I can have a cookie cause I like cake. Both are good, but they're not the same thing.

Thank you for your time and consideration,



I'm not sure if you're writing suspense or a comic crime novel here. It's seems more comic than suspenseful right now.

There's no plot, and the characters seem artificial.

I'm not sure if that's a problem with the query, or the novel. 

10 comments:

Sam Mills said...

I got more of a romance vibe from the query-- not a bad thing! But I assumed from the emphasis on her being single, to being paired with a smartass, that the primary plot was hate-each-other to love-each-other.

(It's actually something I'm wrestling with in my own permanently-under-construction query, because I know the default assumption about "man and woman can't stand each other but have to work together" is romance rather than professional respect.)

Melissa said...

The first paragraph confused me in that it says she fears being alone forever but then it seems she's okay with it. Also fearing being alone at 28 forever made me roll me eyes and dislike her. I'm not sure if the character or the novel know what they are yet.

For an awesome example of suspense intermingled with snarky humor, check out the Spellman Files. It's also rare example of there being no discernible plot but a very engaging read.

nightsmusic said...

With a couple of minor tweaks, this could be a great query for a romance novel. Your opening line is classic for a romance query so if that's not what this is, don't start it that way. Also, your 'partner' is typical romance fodder, he does, she doesn't, they get into trouble, one almost dies and troo wuv conquers all!

The other problem for me with this is that she's only twenty-eight. To be the best there is, forty plus would be more believable to me. Also, the being alone might also make a bit more sense.The only stakes at present are that Verity must maintain her reputation 'or die trying'. Even assassins retire and there's always a younger pup trying to push the 'best of the best' out of the way. I've watched a lot of movies with a similar plot but usually, the young pup is trying to kill the best of the best. Some were great, some not so much. However, as I mentioned earlier, I'm not sure what the plot even is but I don't think that's it so why mention it?

If I were a romance agent, I might read the attached pages to see where it goes. Any other agent would probably do the same as Janet. I think you need to figure out what your novel really is and query based on that.

Francesca Strada said...

It reminded me, in some aspects (lone killer, only one human contact with the company she works for) with Elekta.
I found the tone more comic than full of suspence.
As suggested I would put the emphasis on the main character (Verity, by the way I like the name, even if it reminds of the classic), I only got a very superficial impression of her and I can’t emphasize with her, let alone care for her.
If she is so good at killing, why having a partner makes her think her boss is doubting her abilities?
The way you introduced her (strong killer) doesn’t reason well with her fear of remaining single. Why is she scared? She had to kill her boyfriend to prove her loyalty to her boss? Or did they have him killed to make her focus on her job? (I’m letting my imagination running free now)
I can imagine the suspance is somehow connected with the three people she has to kill.
What choices she will have to make? What risks will she face?
It’s a good idea, I think, you just need to work on the most salient aspects of your novel.

E.Maree said...

"And any woman who thinks a warm cup of tea is good company sounds like an idiot."

I've never felt so personally attacked by a Queryshark critique before.

"Books, a cat, even a daily soap opera would be less frothy."

Oh, I see the problem! Your Sharkliness, if your tea if frothy it's no wonder you're not a fan. Hmmm. Maybe it's the salt-water messing up the brew?

Honestly, I really loved all the little tea jokes in the query, I found it added a lot of personality to the story and helped me connect with the protagonist. The line about Cy correcting her tea-pouring worked well for me, though if you really want to twist the knife in, you could have have him put the milk in first.

I agree with the comments above that the query has got a romance vibe going. I love thrillers with a romance b-plot, but if you want to sell the book as a suspense first and a romance second, the query needs to show that. As it is, the query is romance first and suspense second.

Rachel said...

I agree that it sounds more like the makings of a romance novel and could be interesting. I just feel when I read it that, for someone who makes life and death decisions for a living, she doesn’t seem to know what she wants.

Karen McCoy said...

Great critique....but what if I do think of tea as good company? :)

Unknown said...

Agreed, this is definitely a romance novel, but I'm not sure the author understands Verity enough. On the one hand, we get that she's scared of dying alone. But in the very same sentence, she's characterized as enjoying her solitude and her career. With the teaser that she must maintain her rep at all costs, her ambition and career focus should be more central to her character. She doesn't have a love life because she's always driven by her truest love, her work. I definitely get that hate-becomes-love vibe, which I think is an easier angle to work if the protagonist isn't already looking for a relationship... it just hits them over the head, as love does.

I also found it jarring how this query describes her targets. If she's a top assassin for a shady secret organization of hitmen, she shouldn't care about descriptors like "criminals" or even "three men." After all, why distinguish them as criminals when she herself holds a highly illegal job? And referring to them as men is too humanizing, the wrong tone for this stage. They should probably be called targets or marks.

CavalierdeNuit said...

Thank you so much everyone for the feedback! I do not want this to turn into a romance. Seems it's a rather overused trope. So hopefully my revision will reflect that it's two assassins who simply loathe each other.

Francesca Strada said...

You put too much stuff but you haven’t developed it enough. It’s just too much. Again I see the romantic aspect, and not much suspense.
I think you should take a step back from your book and think again about your plot. I feel like something is missing. You’ve these two exceptional killers sent to kill this despicable dude, but the night before they act Cy gets so drunk he almost get them caught!?!? Sounds a bit absurd.
I’m not sure where your story is going to end, but just looking at your revised query, it seems the only think that can happen is she saves the situation, kill the bad guy and possibly they’ll start a relationship.
A suspense novel should let the reader hanging, biting on his/her nails as the story moves forward. There should also be some sort of sub plot, twists etc.
I feel you’ve some good materials but you need to look again at your plot and maybe add the missing elements.
Don’t give up!
All the best!