Sunday, January 25, 2009



Dear Query Shark,

Sixteen-year-old loner Scott Foster spends his free time programming and writing science fiction stories. After the death of his infant sister, Scott's parents join an extremist religious sect that promises eternal life in a misguided effort to rebuild their lives and marriage.

Scott is the sole atheist in a congregation which believes that science, free thought, and disbelief are heretical. Though Scott opposes the church's views, he's afraid to tell his parents and risk alienating them. Still, he's horrified to see his parents become different people as they unquestioningly accept the church's radical beliefs.

When Scott's parents find that he is cutting himself (for reasons even Scott doesn't understand), they send Scott to a psychologist. Though initially unwilling to discuss his problems, Scott's loneliness overcomes his reluctance. Asked by his psychologist to keep a diary, Scott writes the story of his sister's death, his parents' conversion to born-again fundamentalism, and the reasons for his lifelong introversion. Scott's journal and his short stories intertwine with his day-to-day life to illustrate his frustration with a family that prizes civility and repression over emotional health.

Scott tries to find religious equilibrium with his parents, attempts to befriend a geeky classmate, and begins to accept his sister's death. As pressures from church and school build, his psychiatric sessions and increasingly sardonic short stories become outlets for his loneliness and frustration.

"The Dead Rise", a 70,000-word young adult novel and my first book, is a snapshot of the isolation of funerals, dogma, and high school. As an atheist who attended a fundamentalist church for two years, I've felt the isolation of disbelief in the midst of public scrutiny.

Per your submission requirements, below are the first (x) pages of the book. I am currently querying a handful of agents. Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Yup, that works. I'm going to ask for pages on this because of the story. I"m not in love with the very removed, bystander voice in the query letter, but I'm still going to read pages.


Dear Query Shark,

"The Dead Rise", a 50,000-word young adult novel and my first book, is a snapshot of the loneliness of death, ideology, and high school.

Scott Foster, sophomore and closet atheist, spends his free time programming and writing science fiction stories. After Scott's infant sister dies, his parents join a fundamentalist church in an effort to rebuild their lives and marriage.

Why is he a closet atheist? Were his parents in a more mainstream church before their daughter's death? What attracts them to the more charismatic church? Why ISN'T Scott attracted to it?

Scott's diary entries and short stories intertwine to illustrate a week in Scott's life: increasing pressure from his parents and friends to convert to their religion; his crush on high school princess Laura Hope; his continuing struggles to come to terms with his sister's death and his worries about his parents' new beliefs.

As introvert Scott muddles through the banalities of high school and his dubiety of religion, he attempts to understand his parents' faith, compose an essay for the school's first annual creative writing contest, and connect to another high school outcast.

As an atheist who attended a fundamentalist church for two years, I wrote "The Dead Rise" to describe the isolation of disbelief in the midst of faith.

uh oh. You better be writing it to tell a compelling story. That's always the start of a good novel. All that other illuminating stuff is secondary.

Thank you for considering my book, and I look forward to hearing from you.


The concept is more interesting than the writing. You don't quite have a compelling narrative voice here. You're talking about Scott rather than showing us what he feels. I think you may be biting off more than you can chew by trying to do this all in a single week.

I'd probably read this just cause I like the idea, but more often than not these ok, I'll give it a try end up being rejected at the partial stage cause they're not fully realized yet.

But, I'd read this.


Adam Heine said...

To my knowledge, fundamentalist and charismatic are not the same thing, Ms. Shark. I think "fundamentalist church" refers to what would be considered a mainstream church. Fundamentalist implies a strict adherence to Christian "fundamentals," which more often than not leads to a conservative style of church.

Charismatic is more dancing, flag waving, speaking in tongues, falling on the floor kind of stuff.

That, however, doesn't answer the question of why he's a closet atheist. It would make sense if he grew up in the church and his parents had always been Christians, but the query makes it sound as if his parents just started going. In that situation, I think it'd be a lot easier for him to say, "You know what, Mom? I'm broken up about Sally too, but I don't know about this church thing. Hope it works for you though."

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

Query Shark, if there wasn't an ocean between us I swear I'd give you a hug!!! You've just solved a problem in my query letter!

I've rewritten the *censored* thing so many times, but there was still something niggling me and it boiled down to one line which reading this post brought into focus.

I used the phrase "...explores the concept that...". I've now changed it to "...tells how L,J & M discover that..." so the focus is now on the story and not the theme.

Amazing what I've learnt since I've started blogging!

THANKS!!!! :):)

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

PS do sharks bite when hugged? Maybe I should reconsider that...

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Ann: May I further suggest that you take the phrase "tells how" out of the query? Ideally, your query should show the themes and discoveries made in your story, not tell the reader of the query about them. The discovery should be a natural consequence of the events in your book. If you must spell it out to the reader, try this:

When [something bad happens] to L,J&M, they [run up against obstacle 1 and obstacle 2]. It's only when [they face and just barely overcome obstacle 3] that they discover [x,y&z].

none said...

Eh, if I lived in a country where the majority of the population think atheists are the most untrustworthy people possible, I'd be in the closet too....

? said...

Adam, I disagree with your comment that "fundamentalist church refers to what would be considered a mainstream church."

These are the mainstream denominations:





along with various smaller denominations such as the Congregationalists. Then you have Catholics, who are very much a common, mainstream church.

These denominations will have more conservative churches and parishes along with more liberal ones, but on the whole the mainline denominations and the Catholic Church are not considered fundamentalists and they would be among the first to tell you.

In the common acceptance of the phrase, fundamentalist churches are recognized as churches that operate outside the mainline/mainstream denominations and are often independent organizations founded by a certain pastor. Mega-churches can be (though not always) fundamentalist churches.

The one denomination that does incorporate a large mainstream element and a large fundamentalist element is the Baptist Church.

In your writing you should certainly be aware that by far most readers will not assume a Presbyterian or an Episcopalian or Catholic church is a fundamentalist church.

Belvoir said...

I agree with Tally here. "Fundamentalist" has a very distinct connotation. First, it is distinctly American; it believes in things like being "born again", and the Rapture- which mainstream denominations do not- and is comparatively recent as a distinct religious outlook. ( As in, the 20th century.)

In any case, my main problem with the query is how dull it sounds. What happens? The main character is only described in passive actions: an introvert who doubts, frets, ponders religion. He pines for the pretty girl. He struggles to write an essay.

This last bit especially puts me to sleep: a writer struggling to write something, about Big Imponderable Questions. In exceptionally talented hands this could be pulled off engagingly, but this sounds more like a thinly veiled autobiography with boring philisophical soul-searching.

I'm respectful of religion, but there's so many writers who seem to think their "struggle' with faith is endlessly fascinating and unique. When it's something practically everyone goes through, at some point.

talpianna said...

To get the skinny on fundamentalism in Christianity, which has a very specific meaning, look here:

WV: muremi--a cow practicing scales

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

Great suggestion thanks Phoenix - I'll go & tweak some more :) :)

Anonymous said...

Specific definitions aside, what I want to know here is how this differs from the angsty teenage years of *anybody* who ended up non-religious after growing up with conservative religious parents. I know dozens of people who have been through things like this.

What makes Scott Foster the best possible voice to tell this story? He sounds like just another random kid going through this. Sucks to be him, as they say, but unless he stands out somehow, I don't want to hear *his* story, even if the writing is good and I find the idea interesting. I find the plight of women in Iran interesting, but what makes Persepolis worthwhile is that Marjane Satrapi was not just an ordinary Iranian girl. Harry Potter wouldn't be interesting if his life was just that of a typical teenage wizard. Dante and Randall are not ordinary retail clerks. Jesus is not an ordinary carpenter's son. Something here has to show how Scott *isn't* an ordinary high school kid with religious parents.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

Phoenix I'm adding you to my hug list!!! :):)

Your suggestion worked SO well! Thanks!

JS said...

Harry Potter wouldn't be interesting if his life was just that of a typical teenage wizard.

Now I am thinking that Blaise Zabini and the Very Difficult Potions Revision...nah.

My word verification is "unquejet" which might be something Blaise had to memorize!

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Hugs back, Ann! Can't wait to see your query here in shark waters ;o)

Friendly Dinosaur said...

I'm the query author. Thanks so much to everyone here - and especially the Query Shark - for their suggestions / comments. I'm working on revising the book, as well as the query.

Some of the problem is how much I've left out of the query letter in attempting to keep it short.

For instance: the definition of fundamentalist churches (Talpianna nailed it. In short, it's a very conservative church that reads the Bible literally rather than metaphorically), the reason his atheism is secret (in some areas of the country, and especially in fundamentalist churches, atheism is taboo), and why Scott isn't just another grumpy teenager.

My revised query also needs to tell more of the story - there has to be a better way to balance brevity and plot. Reviewing my query, it seems a little like a book report.

Again, thanks to everyone for the help and criticism!

Teagen said...

Starving Author--When you're thinking of writing the summary, try thinking of it as you're writing the blurb on the back (or inside cover) of a book. It doesn't work for everyone, but it's worth a try. You want it to be short, catchy, and telling without giving away everything. See if that helps when summarizing your plot and getting out those main points.

NL Berger said...

Query Shark: Thank you for this blog. I've just finished polishing my first novel and am starting to query agents. In reading the posts and comments here, I've learned so much. You're amazing.

I have no particular advice to offer about this query that hasn't already been said. I just wanted to drop in and express my gratitude.

talpianna said...

What? No St. Valentine's Day massacre? How about some fresh meat, Sharky dear?

WV:ingst--angst with gerundives

Teagen said...

Much better summary, and I can kind of begin understanding the main character. I agree with the shark, though, the voice is still really distant. You're getting really close, though.

AndrewDugas said...

I doubt that religious fundamentalists would send their child to a psychologist. It runs counter to their philosophy. They would go the pastor route first, and the therapist route maybe never.