Monday, August 10, 2009

#127-revised 3x

Dear Query Shark,

In 1848, Jack Numont desires Beaver Island, Michigan to remain a paradise, but the Mormons are coming, and with them arrives a peculiar sexuality and violence. At first, Jack considers surrendering to his pacifist upbringing and simply join the Mormon Church to blend in and stay safe, but that notion sticks in his craw. The Mormon practice of defiling multiple wives, in Jack’s mind, is a heinous, mortal sin, and he cannot--idly stand by.

Let's start with that first sentence: In 1848, Jack Numont desires Beaver Island, Michigan to remain a paradise, but the Mormons are coming, and with them arrives a peculiar sexuality and violence.

If the first thing you show me in a query letter is a long-ass sentence that I have to parse to find the subject, you're showing me I'm going to see more of this in your novel. This is textbook Not A Good Thing.

Frankly, I'd probably stop reading here.  Fair? Probably not. But honestly, this sentence begs to be revised for clarity.

Consider this: Jack Numont is convinced he lives in Paradise: Beaver Island, Michigan.  BUT, once you write that you can see it's not the way to start this query. You want to begin your query with the problem. The problem isn't paradise. The problem is the influx of people who are violent. 

So, start here: The Mormons are coming to Beaver Island, Michigan and Jack Numont is afraid they will  (whatever he's afraid they will do.)

What you haven't conveyed here is why the folks in Beaver Island think the Mormons are out to get them.

But you get to that here in the second paragraph, which says to me that this is where you should start.

Based on historical events, the self-proclaimed Mormon King, James Strang led a splinter group of pilgrims to Beaver Island and drove out the Irish Catholics with religious intolerance and fiscal policy. King Strang hates gentiles and has outlawed: U.S. currency, whiskey, and all other religions—except his.

Except of course you still have those long ass sentences. And "fiscal policy"?? What exactly does that mean in the cash and barter economy the 1848? He sure as hell didn't cut off their credit cards or bundle their mortgages in the subprime market. Be SPECIFIC.

Consider: In 1848 the self-proclaimed Mormon King, James Strang, led a splinter group to Beaver Island Michigan and drove out the resident Irish Catholics with (and now you'll need to be very specific here about what he did. Burn? Rape? Pillage? Play loud music?)

Then you bring in Jack Numont. (Is Jack Numont a fictional character? If he is you should consider changing his name. Jack/James is confusing)

Jack begins his crusade to expel the Mormons from Beaver Island by executing a plot of excruciating subterfuge to undermine the Church’s finances. Given enough time, his secondary campaign to expose Mormon dogma as outrageous lies will have their religious potentate’s eyes gushing blood.

Executing a plot of excruciating subterfuge--I exhort you to excise one of the ex's from your sentence here. 

While King Strang believes he has God’s ear, his ultimate weakness is megalomaniacal madness. For acts of sedition the King prefers Jack impale himself on something sharp--with his help, of course and preferably yesterday.

Megalomanical madness is pretty boring.  It will really REALLY help if your antagonist is interesting.  He must have been a compelling figure if he led people into a splinter faction and off into the wilderness. You've got to figure out what drew people to him and let the reader see it too. He can't just be bad cause you need him to be bad.

Jack’s rage and fear drives him toward regicide. His patience is wearing thin. Murder is quicker, but his pacifist soul wants peace.

This is all too general to be enticing.

THE MAD KING OF BEAVER ISLAND is 110,000 words. It is Historical Fiction/Low Fantasy and my first novel.

Wait. Low fantasy? WHAT?  oh god, no no no. Call it historical fiction. That sounds right to me.

I do like the title. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Revise. Excise.

Dear Query Shark,

In 1848, Jack Numont wants his paradise on Beaver Island, Michigan back from the invading Mormon hoard. He refuses to convert or comply with Mormon ideology which puts him in the crosshairs of the new Mormon sovereign. (paragraph break here will help us see this guy as the antagonist) King Strang hates gentiles and has outlawed U.S. currency, whiskey, and all other religions—except his. Using God as a bludgeon the King coerces teenage girls into polygamous relations with his gray-haired cronies and decrees all women must wear thin, loose bloomers in public. (put this next sentence at the end of the first paragraph--->) Jack wishes the Mormons to go back to hell where they spawned.

Here's what the revised formatting would look like:

In 1848, Jack Numont wants his paradise on Beaver Island, Michigan back from the invading Mormon hoard. He refuses to convert or comply with Mormon ideology which puts him in the crosshairs of the new Mormon sovereign. Jack wishes the Mormons to go back to hell where they spawned.

King Strang hates gentiles and has outlawed U.S. currency, whiskey, and all other religions—except his. Using God as a bludgeon the King coerces teenage girls into polygamous relations with his gray-haired cronies and decrees all women must wear thin, loose bloomers in public.

The King’s thugs, the Marshals, are charged with driving off all nonbelievers, including the new tavern-owner, Meri. Jack’s a young shopkeeper and Meri’s business acumen has him considering a merger—personal and financial.

One thing I was confused about is that King Strang means he's a king. For some reason I thought it was a name.  Why**? Cause I don't associate Michigan with kings at all. Last I saw Michigan was a state of these United ones, since 1836  

** or too much devotion to the James Garner character in Victor/Victoria!

The Marshals escalate their violent persuasions after the last ship departs the island for the winter. They implicate Jack in a murder and bullwhip him when they can’t prove his guilt. Meri nurses Jack’s wounds, and he loves her for her tenderness. For her trouble, the King bombs her tavern.

This is just more exposition of the same plot point: Jack opposes the bad guys.

Jack longs to be with his new sweetheart, but his first love, Beaver Island, requires his help to eradicate its current Mormon infestation.

Jack’s rage points him toward regicide. While the King believes he has God’s ear, his ultimate weakness is megalomaniacal madness. The Marshals prefer Jack impale himself on something sharp--with their help, of course and preferably yesterday.

That last line is terrific.

Who destroys and who self-destructs is left to history.

Which is ok but that's the end of the novel. We don't need the whole book, we need the plot. It's not what happens to your characters (that's a series of events) it's how those characters respond to what happens to them (I learned that from a commenter on one of the Queryshark posts! You bet I stole it and posthaste!) What choice does Jack have to make. What are the stakes of that choice?

THE LADY OF THE LAKES is a alternative history novel of 110,000 words.

Alternative to what? Alternative history is usually a well-known event or time, turned inside out. We have no sense of that here. It's not something we can intuit from text either (other than knowing there really wasn't a king in Michigan) You need to start out your query with what this is an alternative history for.

This is a totally different novel than the one you queried for earlier. I like this one a lot more. I have the utmost admiration for writers who don't give up, don't have their posts taken down in a huff, and press on to improve.

Very good revision.


Dear Query Shark,

In 1679, Meri du Sida must choose between an island tribe of Native Americans and French explorers demanding her return to Quebec.

The explorers aspire to the moral high ground by repatriating Meri, but they do not recognize her penchant to strike out and kill on a whim.

Then you fall off the right track and go splat.  The second sentence needs to be about Meri, not the explorers.  Meri is the protagonist.   What's at stake in this choice for HER?

Recognize is the wrong word here.  It means either they see it but don't know what it is, or they see it and give it no credence or authority.  I think you mean they don't know she does this. And if they did, would it encourage them to decamp from high moral ground?

Meri is petrified of water and has not left the island since being orphaned as a child. She is a skilled shaman, a mother and tribal pariah. The villagers adore her child, but Meri, not so much. Men die around the derisive and vindictive woman.

And here is a big huge splat. If Meri is the protagonist you've described her in terms that make me want to avoid the hell out of her, not spend 110,000 words getting to know her better.

Bad can be enticing but you're missing the enticing part here. You make your protagonist enticing by showing us why she's all these bad things.

The father of Meri's child is a malicious Indian deity, and he does not want his precious to leave with the white devils. He would rather see her, and them, dead.

You cannot use the phrase "his precious" without conjuring up Lord of the Rings. That's probably something you don't want to do because it makes me wonder if I'm going to read pages that are derivative or thinly disguised fan fiction.

Also, another malicious character? Is anyone the good guy here?

Meri's decision (what decision?--you mean her choice) is nullified when she is kidnapped and held captive aboard the French ship. She believes sailing the Great Lakes means her death, like her father's before her. The young mother's last wish is for her child to be raised by the family she loves, and the tribe that despises Meri's existence.

I am now totally and completely at sea...and not in a good way. What family? Is Meri the "young mother"?

Her devine lover, unable to free Meri, commands her to execute a human sacrifice aboard ship and place a curse on the French voyagers.

I think you mean divine unless greenery is somehow coming in to play. And who is this lover? Is it the same person as the father of Meri's child?

And human sacrifices? Yikes!!!

If Meri does not complete the curse and satisfy the demands of her spirit paramour, he will remove her daughter--permanently.

Yea, but isn't she already separated from the kid?

Meri's choice may be obvious, but the curse will plunge Meri into a campaign for survival against the explorers in perpetuity or until the curse is broken.

THE LADY OF THE LAKES is a low fantasy novel of 110,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Well, this is an improvement but there's still a ways to go.

Refer to your characters by name as much as possible without overdoing it. In short form work like a query, you don't have time to for your reader to recognize characters by more than one name or more than one description usually.

Clarity is the most important thing in a query. If I don't know what you're talking about, I'm not going to be enticed to read it.

Start again. Simplify. Focus on the first choice Meri makes, and the stakes for THAT choice. Give us a reason to care about what choice she makes.

Dear Query Shark,

Merida must kill herself to place a curse on the sailboat Le Griffin, and all aboard her. Merida is an auburn haired beauty with a poisoned soul. She hears voices in her head and the voices tell her to kill herself to initiate the curse. Merida intuitively believes the voices are her Spirit Gods and acts on their directions.

In 1679, Cavalier de La Salle's Le Griffin became the very first Flying Dutchman above the Niagara Falls as Merida fulfills her obligation to the Spirit Gods. The curse not only sinks Le Griffin and kills all aboard; it spreads its evil intentions to all of the future ancestors of those aboard.

The curse causes deep seated unfathomable feelings of hatred in some of the children of Le Griffin. This will lead to murder and mayhem among the future children of the crew. The curse can be broken with the aid of a few benevolent Spirit Gods, but even they cannot decipher the condition for nullifying the curse placed by Merida.

In the end

One by love

One by hate

Will end the fate.

Merida is the adopted white daughter of an Indian medicine man and has learned Indian lore. Merida cursed the ship and all aboard when she was made to leave her home and was forced to return to the colonies of her birth. Merida's unbending fear of water tipped her over the edge and into psychosis when she was confronted with a long sailing trip back east.

Lt. Proto, a French explorer with La Salle, and Wasaga, an Indian interpreter, found themselves on Le Griffin trying to prevent Merida from fulfilling the curse. The two men were caught up in the curse when Wasaga was thrown overboard to his death and Lt Proto was killed by Merida just before her suicide.

In 1679 La Salle, the builder of Le Griffin watched as she sailed away from Le Gran Bay in Lake Michigan to complete her maiden voyage. In the age of sail an overdue ship was cause for concern and speculation. Speculation is rife with stories of good and bad intentions. This multigenerational tale starts with Le Griffin and ends with the most well known sinking of a ship on the Great Lakes in the latter half of the twentieth century.

The future generations of the crew of Le Griffin have strikingly similar names, odd quirks and descriptions to those people lost in 1679. This was done to maintain the continuity of the main characters as they progress through the centuries. The ancestors of Le Griffin wind their lives through the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Mormon King of Beaver Island, sinking ships and shipwrecks on inhospitable shores. Eventually they fulfill the requirements of the curse and end it nearly three hundred years later.

THE LADY OF THE LAKE is 250,000 words long and is historical fiction. Thank you for your time and consideration.



P.S. I have read the rules and I know this part does not belong in a query. I have read the vast majority of your query critiques and I have found them very enlightening. Up to a week ago I had never heard of a query as it relates to seeking an agent. I am positive I would have made all of the typical mistakes plus a few new ones. So thank you for your help. I have also realized in reading the queries that the genre and length of my work does not seem to fit into the literary mode your agency typically represents. I will value any help you can give me in honing my skills. I hope my query will be a good teaching tool if you chose to critique it. I'm thickening up my skin as I write and I promise not to call or stop by...ever.

That PS made me laugh. It also made me choose this letter.

You know this is a mess, but you're willing to learn. That's good.

First, 250,000 words is just too long.
It has to be cut in half. Even epic fantasy novels from debut authors can't be more than about 125,000 words these days.

So, first thing: chop.

Then start with: who is the heroine? What choice does she face? What are the consequences of that choice? Write that in 250 or fewer words. You don't need the entire plot. You need to compel me to read the first five pages. That's ALL you have to do in the query.

Form rejection (but you knew that)

Start again.


Dear Query Shark:

Fanfare for the Common Woman is a 90,000 word work of women’s fiction that revolves around the emotional development of Cris Pereira. She is a twenty-something Latina with a recent history of heartbreak: her first love confessed to cheating on her months after their engagement, and her father succumbed to cancer only a few weeks later. These events have made Cris quietly bitter and openly jaded about love and the possibility of finding happiness. Because she is an inherently strong woman with a low tolerance for pity, she hides her pain behind her sunny smile and acerbic wit. In private, she suffers recurring nightmares centered on her fear of being alone.

And why should I care? This is all tell, no show. Show us what Cris is like. This reads like an intake report of some kind. There's no voice, no spark here.

This is where I'd stop reading in a query letter.

One ordinary Sunday, she volunteers to take her cousins to a celebrity autograph signing. While there, she inadvertently attracts the attention of the young actor Tom Abramson. He is drawn to her unique sense of humor and spirited independence. Intrigued by her disinterest in him, he proceeds to contact her via text messages and emails. Against her better judgment, she cannot ignore the stirrings of her long-dead heart.

Again, this is all tell, no show. We have no sense of her unique sense of humor and spirited independence. You really don't need all the psychological set up. The start of this story is when Tom meets Cris. She's not interested, he stalks woos her.

Throughout the tale, Cris is constantly challenged by those around her to excise the demons of her past and believe in the plausibility of happiness. Her closest friends, Gita and Hana, offer contrasting perspectives that add humor and heartache to Cris’ journey of self-development. Tom’s carefree spirit is repeatedly juxtaposed alongside Cris’ penchant for thoughtful deliberation. He insists that Cris needs to think less, and do more. To that effect, he organizes experiences that push her outside of her comfort zone, with a wide array of results.

This is all so general as to be boring. What do they do? What choice does Cris need to make? What risk does she take?

Will Cris finally understand what it means to be happy? Will she relinquish her tight hold on the reins and learn to live in the moment?

I am a twenty-something woman with a multicultural background and degrees in English Composition and Political Science. A great deal of the experiences in this work are taken from my own life, and I hope to convey sentiments that many women will be able to relate to and understand.

I don't care about any of that. All I care about is whether this is an interesting and compelling novel.

I came across your blog when I was searching for information on query letters, and I really appreciate both your humor and your efforts to make such a daunting process easier. You truly are filled with "salacious badassness" - in the best kind of way.

Well, ok, sucking up is never wrong artful compliments are never out of place (and thank you.)

Thank you so much for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you. Below is the text from the first five pages of my novel.


Form rejection.


Dear Query Shark,

What would you do if your whole hometown was wiped out? Your friends, your family, everyone was killed by a homicidal maniac. The only thing you can think of doing is running from the dying community.

The problem with these kinds of rhetorical questions is that you frequently don't get the answer that you need to generate interest in the book. For example if my entire home town was wiped out, I might be damn glad because after that house fell on my sister Munchkinland just hasn't been the same.

Your best bet is to tell me what your story is about.

Or what if your birth was the ruin of your mother? You were despised and alienated for years, but were able to finally find something that resembled shelter. Years later, you are forced to fight an unknown with all you have to keep that safe haven.

Again, these questions just beg for sarcastic answers (we're a tough crowd here in Queryville).

And the "you" second person is hardly ever the most compelling choice. So far, I don't know anything about what YOUr book is about.

In both scenarios, you have two real options. You can either curl up and die, or you can do what you can to survive. And having the ability to manipulate part of nature won't help you either. If you choose to live as either person, it won't be easy alone. You're going to need at least one miracle. Like, say, meeting the other person.

I'd stop reading here. I don't have a clue what the book is about. You're awash in generalities.

Fredrick Brown and Kathena Sahaara are lucky enough to get that miracle. They meet and soon after join forces. For Kathena, it's a chance to start over with someone who has the magical power to not be afraid of her and the ignorance to take her on. For Fredrick, it's his only opportunity to begin to understand the world his father came from and meet someone from outside that understands.

This is the closest you've come to telling me about the book. Remember the formula: Who is the hero/heroine? What choice does s/he face? What are the consequences of that choice/not making the choice. That's what your first paragraph should cover.

At first, it seems that they have found the answers to their problems in each other, but that maniac who destroyed Kathena's home has decided that he is eventually going to finish the job and throw in her new friend as a bonus.

Maniacs are boring. They're one dimensional and irrational. If you want scary, tell us why the villain is making this choice (remember, the villain thinks HE'S the hero of the story)

Fredrick and Kathena will have a few years to prepare before the attack and both have a knack for holding onto life. However, they are matched against a man who has destroyed their kind for ages.

It's a long shot, but they just might make it.

The rest of the story is in my book, Red Moon. It's about 100,000 words long and falls into the category of urban fantasy. You can contact me by replying to this e-mail, calling me at (redacted), or sending snail mail to (redacted) Thank you for your time and consideration.

Just list your contact info under your name. It's good to include it. Leave out "the rest of the story" because it's pretty obvious that's where the rest of the story is.

This is a form rejection.