Sunday, April 22, 2018

#306

Question: I describe Woman in the Wind as a literary crime novel but am unsure. It’s certainly not a straight crime novel because while the story hinges on criminal acts, it's the story of a quest that involves a woman's awakening to her own potential for work and love. This probably isn’t the most sea-shaking question I could ask Query Shark, but do the themes and some non-traditional characters mean I’m calling it by the right term?



Dear QueryShark:

A jaded Iris Clark doesn’t expect much when she returns to her Texas hometown to help her mother, but deep down, she hopes for renewal. Trouble is, Stillwell’s not that kind of place. It’s the kind of place where a woman can disappear for no good reason and plenty of bad ones.


Iris runs head on into that hard reality when a white-girl DUI lands her in county jail, where she finds casual assaults and oppression to be the norm, and Lea, the unstable young African-American student who’s her cellmate, to be flat-out delusional. Once home, Iris discovers that when Lea was released, she was dumped out of the jail on the Sabinal Canyon Road at midnight—no ride, no phone—and seen no more.

At this point, my fingers are crossed that this query will not implode. I'm interested in what happens next.

Lea’s mother Roberta discovers that nobody except Iris will listen, and so the two of them join forces and start asking questions. They meet with indifference and hostility, but Iris’s twenty years in LA has erased her small-town caution. Using old money connections, she expands the search and manages to grab some media attention. When she is run off the road and nearly killed, it seems obvious that she is onto something.



Iris comes back strong, but Roberta fades, overcome by despair and a traumatic personal history. Iris cultivates an eclectic crew—the crackpot millionaire she knew as a child, her mother’s gay caregiver, a freelance detective who mentors her, and a fearless new friend. Tom├ís soon becomes more than a friend, which also makes him more of a target, but when he is arrested, beaten and jailed with gang members, he gains new intel that helps Iris untangle the stories of missing women. Despite warnings, Iris goes it alone and in a fight for her life, finds help from a surprising ally.

And this is all just too much. The abstract "traumatic personal history" isn't specific enough to be interesting. The eclectic crew isn't deftly drawn enough to be anything other than a string of adjectives.

There's nothing we need here in terms of plot.

I'll keep reading but the momentum is dropping.

Revelations of murder and corruption crack open the sealed world of Stillwell, but Iris and Tomas see hope in a future there and commit to a life together along the Sabinal River.

If this is the end of the novel, the first thing to remember is you don't talk about the entire novel in a query. That's what a synopsis is for.

You would have been better off to stop at the end of paragraph 3.

Woman in the Wind is a literary crime novel complete at 76,000 words. As director of Texas Jail Project, I hear the stories of women who survive the brutality of the criminal justice system and of the ones who don’t, including the model for Lea who died in a California canyon after being released from a local jail. I’m 140 pages into another novel about Iris, relocated to a Rio Grande border town where she joins a diverse band of locals battling a powerful coal-mining company. 

Don't spend time in this query talking about the next book.

And 76,000 words seems very very short if you're talking about a taut suspense novel. In other words, do you have enough story here?

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

None of the problems in this query would keep me from reading pages, but it could certainly be tightened up by focusing ONLY on the precipitating incident and then what's at stake for Iris. We really don't have any sense of that here.


You can tank that first pages opportunity if you open with someone waking up, driving, getting a phone call, or doing any of the other gazillion things writers like to do before getting to something interesting.

It's ok to write all that stuff, but when you're revising the big question to ask yourself: is something changing for my main character yet?  Don't make me read 20 pages to get to that point.



As for your question: any crime novel, whether literary or not, requires that the plot hinge on a crime of some sort, and the resolution of the plot be the resolution of the crime. In other words, Romeo and Juliet isn't a crime novel (ok, play) because the resolution of the plot isn't the resolution of the crime (which is Romeo killing Tybalt.)

 Whether this is a literary crime novel, I don't know. I'd have to read the novel.

What I do know is this is NOT a quest novel which generally require an actual journey of some sort from innocence to maturity.

This doesn't feel like women's fiction because there's not a strong enough sense of Iris growing as a person.

And it's certainly not a romance because the romance isn't the centerpiece of the book.

I hope it's literary crime or suspense, because that's what I'm looking for.

The problem with not knowing if it's a crime novel (or any other specific genre) is that if you tell me it's literary crime, and the book doesn't adhere to the requirements of the genre, I'll be frustrated and confused. That's not not not your goal!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

#305

Question:
The pivotal scene in my manuscript is the rape of the main character. My last beta reader said she had nightmares for two days about the story and I should be upfront regarding the violent aspects of the plot. Should I be direct about this in the query letter? Does it matter to agents?


Dear Query Shark:

For college freshman Maggie Coinin, befriending shy Brian Chasseur didn’t seem significant, but now he’s following her around like a lost dog. She thinks he has a harmless crush. She couldn’t be more wrong.

This is a nice start. There's an immediate sense that something is about to happen.

Maggie isn’t aware that Brian lives in a medicated haze to quell his violent outbursts. Knowing his rage can’t get the better of him again, he’s hidden a gun and a single bullet in his dorm room.

I don't understand the purpose of this paragraph. You're repeating the sense of impending doom from the previous paragraph. That undercuts the power of the first paragraph. The second paragraph should move us forward, not repeat what we already know or elaborate on the elements of "more wrong." You can take this whole thing out and not lose any of the plot.

 You've also got both points of view: Maggie's in the first sentence and Brian's in the second sentence.  That's REALLY confusing.


After Maggie rejects Brian’s advances, he ditches his medication to let the real Brian come out. As far as he’s concerned, their fates are intertwined, and she must realize that they belong together. But when stalking her isn’t enough to satisfy his desire, Brian takes what he wants.

I'd stop reading right here, and pass as fast as I could.  Right now, this book seems to be about a violent man who stalks a woman, and frankly, I have zero interest in reading that. 

Maggie is a cipher right now, seen only as the object of Brian's attention. We don't know anything about her, what she wants, what's keeping her from getting it. We have no reason to care about her.

If there's one thing readers have stopped buying it's books where women are merely objects. 

Years in prison have given Brian time to think about Maggie’s sins. Not only has she stolen a part of his life, she murdered their child. Now that he’s free, he’s tracked Maggie to Chicago and is looking to settle the score.

Wait, what?? I thought they were in college?
And dear god, if "she murdered their child" means Maggie had an abortion after conceiving from a rape, I'm glad I stopped reading before this. 

Maggie is an object, and Brian is a violent rapist. Which character did you think your reader would be interested in? 

Sensing Brian’s return, Maggie has cloistered herself from the world. But when Jude O'Connell walks into her life, she rethinks her solitude. Their growing relationship helps Maggie rediscover her inner strength to confront her past. But as she lets down her guard for Jude, Brian closes in.

Maggie needs to buy a damn stun gun. 

Because we have no idea of what has happened to Maggie in these intervening years, we have no idea what she needs, or wants.  That means the reader fills in what they want her to do (ie the stun gun above), and when your reader starts rewriting your book at the query stage, it's a bad bad sign.

From what you write here Brian is the character driving the plot. He's forcing the changes in Maggie's life. Both a protagonist and an antagonist must have something a reader responds to in a positive way. Neither has to be likable, not at all, but both must be compelling. Right now Brian is not that. He's repellent. This is a problem of the novel, not the query.

My debut novel, THE SLEEP OF REASON, is a complete upmarket fiction manuscript at 88,000-words. The novel is told from Brian’s and Maggie’s points of view. The target audience is women ages twenty-five to forty-five, who enjoyed The Couple Next Door, The Weight of Lies, and Gone Girl.

Here's the description of The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena:
Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all—a loving relationship, a wonderful home, and their beautiful baby, Cora. But one night, when they are at a dinner party next door, a terrible crime is committed. Suspicion immediately lands on the parents. But the truth is a much more complicated story.

Inside the curtained house, an unsettling account of what actually happened unfolds. Detective Rasbach knows that the panicked couple is hiding something. Both Anne and Marco soon discover that the other is keeping secrets, secrets they've kept for years.

What follows is the nerve-racking unraveling of a family—a chilling tale of  deception, duplicity, and unfaithfulness that will keep you breathless until the final shocking twist.

We see Anne and Marco suddenly suspected of a crime. We instantly care about them because we think this suspicion is unfair.  

We know more about Anne and Marco in that first sentence than we do about Maggie in your entire query, and it sets up the reader to care about them. 

And there is NO hint of violence, or mental illness or stalking in this description.

Here's the description for The Weight of Lies by Emily Carpenter
Reformed party girl Meg Ashley leads a life of privilege, thanks to a bestselling horror novel her mother wrote decades ago. But Meg knows that the glow of their very public life hides a darker reality of lies, manipulation, and the heartbreak of her own solitary childhood. Desperate to break free of her mother, Meg accepts a proposal to write a scandalous, tell-all memoir.

Digging into the past—and her mother’s cult classic—draws Meg to Bonny Island, Georgia, and an unusual woman said to be the inspiration for the book. At first island life seems idyllic, but as Meg starts to ask tough questions, disturbing revelations come to light…including some about her mother.

Soon Meg’s search leads her to question the facts of a decades-old murder. She’s warned to leave it alone, but as the lies pile up, Meg knows she’s getting close to finding a murderer. When her own life is threatened, Meg realizes the darkness found in her mother’s book is nothing compared to the chilling truth that lurks off the page.
Again, we know a lot more about Meg in that first sentence than we do about your Maggie. And there doesn't seem to be some sort of violent rapist on the first page here. 


Gone Girl isn't a good comp for anyone any more. It was a runaway success which we all hope for, but is damn hard to replicate. And unless you've got some sort of twist ending here, the only similarity I see is the alternating point of view.

One thing you did well was choosing the first two comps-they're current (both pubbed in 2017.) Comps need to be as current as possible, and generally no more than two or three years old.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The problem here are your characters.
I don't care about Maggie other than in a very abstract way, which is death in a query. I'm repelled by Brian's action, and he seems to be in the grip of mental illness, thus not evil by choice.

An antagonist who does evil because he is mentally ill isn't interesting. He's not in control; he's not choosing to do bad things.
 

To answer your question: the rating system for movies that says "graphic content" or "some nudity" is intended to help parents screen movies for their children. Your book isn't intended for children. Thus you don't need a warning sign on it.

However.  Graphic rape scenes are a HUGE turn  off for me as a reader. Graphic violence of any kind, really.  It's one thing to know something bad happened, even something really bad. It's another thing to read every last detail as it's happening.

Remember too, graphic does not always equal frightening. The scariest movies are the ones where you don't know what's out there, not those with  some monster tearing someone limb from limb. Those blood-fests often become ludicrous, not scary.  The master of suspense (Hitchcock!) let you scare yourself. 

And frankly, if you just tell me there are graphic rape scenes in the query, I'm much MUCH more likely to pass. You're telling me about something I don't want to read about, and without any context, and absent the framework of a story where I care what happens to the characters.  It's as if you told me you're going to poke me with a sharp object.  My instant reaction is "no you are not, and get out of here" as I reach for my stun gun.  But, if you ask to poke me with a needle to inoculate me against the flu, I not only say yes, I give you $20 to do so.  Context.

I think your query has revealed some fundamental problems with your novel. However, if you just chose the wrong way to describe the characters here, revise and resend.




Sunday, April 8, 2018

#304-FTW

Dear QueryShark,

This is not Hallie's bed.
She has never been to this house.
The diamond ring on her left hand does not belong to her.

The only explanation would be a dangerous one, except the woman smiling in the wedding photo looks exactly like her. And the man she just hit in the head with a shoe is claiming to be her husband. When her father, who has been dead ten years, and her mother, a mentally unstable shut-in, reappear in this life whole, happy, and alive, Hallie is forced to face this strange new reality.

She really is married to Quinton Burg.
She never moved to Chicago to be an artist.
She may be on the road to hysteria.

Doctors find nothing wrong, no physical reason for the replacement of memories that has ripped her from a newfound life and dumped her back in her small hometown. Her father's strange behavior toward the memory loss leads Hallie to suspect he has the answers no doctor can give. If she learns his secrets, this new life she has come to accept could disappear like a fading dream.

But if she trusts him, there may be no old life to return to.

THE DIVIDERS is an 80,000-word thriller. Thank you for your time and consideration

This isn't a thriller. My best guess, not having read the pages, is that it's suspense and, most likely domestic suspense. That's not only not a deal breaker it's a big bonus.  Thrillers are harder to sell than domestic suspense these days.

And this is why you put the category at the close of the query, not at the start. An agent looking for domestic suspense might not stop to think "oh hey, she might have the category wrong here." The agent sees thriller, thinks "oh crap not another thriller" and slides right by.


Sincerely,

If this query isn't getting results it's cause the pages don't hold up.  The query is terrific. It's got voice. It's got rhythm. There are no wasted words, or drawn out explanations.

The VERY interesting omission is comps. That's an entirely valid choice and can work in an author's favor.  The first thing I thought of here was the riveting movie Get Out which still haunts me. (Go see it!)  Sometimes letting the agent realize things on their own is pretty smart. It's a risk, but a smart one.