Sunday, March 14, 2010


Dear Query Shark:

Twenty-four year old English teacher Pete Nicely has been waiting for a student like Charlie Novela.

This kid is immediately sharp and sarcastic. He’s amused by his classmates’ attempts to intimidate him. And he even knows how to scan the back covers of books as if shopping in a bookstore.

But in the Zero-Tolerance aftermath of the Columbine massacre, Charlie goes too far.

“If things get too bad,” Charlie says, “I’ll put on a trench coat and take care of things.”

Now Pete has two choices. He can follow new school policy and report Charlie, possibly branding the boy as a psychopath. Or he can try to help Charlie himself.

But he has to do something.

WHY WON’T YOU LOVE ME is a 69,000-word novel about good intentions gone wrong.

Thank you for your time,
Name misspelled

holy moly, you REALLY fixed this.

I'm not sure we've seen this degree of turn around since good ol #148's first and second efforts.

What I like: there's a compelling, energetic voice.
There's an interesting problem.

What I really like: you sucked up a real sharkstorm of critique and made this a whole lot better.

What I don't like but's easily fixed: the names of the characters Nicely and Novela.
I think this works now.
I'd read the first three pages with a query, and if that voice holds up AND it doesn't start with dreaming/driving/showering or some other static formulaic thing, I'd keep reading.

Good job!


Dear Query Shark:

At twenty-four, Pete Nicely is the youngest teacher in an inner-city school that loses a fifth of its faculty every year.

Yet despite daily dealings with apathetic students and useless administrators, Pete still thinks he might be able to save the world and impress Riley Merritt—social studies teacher and the only
registered Communist he’s ever pleasured himself to.

But when the Columbine massacre sends a wave of zero-tolerance hysteria across high schools all over the country, everything changes.

And here's where you abruptly lose me. There may indeed have been a wave of zero-tolerance hysteria after the Columbine shootings, but most of the people who read this query are going to sympathize with it. People aren't rational about the idea of their kids getting shot in school. Do you want them to be?

You need the reference to post-Columbine, but you need a more measured tone.

When the Columbine massacre led to zero-tolerance policies at high schools all over the country, everything changes. Not the most elegant of sentences, but see what I'm getting at here?

Now all Pete, and his mom, can think about is murder. One wrong word and he’s sure guerrilla warfare will break out in his classroom.

I lose all sympathy for Pete here. He sounds like the hysterical one now. One of the most common thing you hear from people after these kinds of events is "I never thought this could happen here" not "we were just one wrong word away from guerrilla warfare."

Only Riley manages to make any sense. “Don’t fret, Nicely. They’ll chew you up if you fret. Just try to save one or two in each class, if you can. And don’t worry, nobody is counting.”

Coming after the reference to Columbine, it looks at first blush as though Riley is suggesting Nicely save one or two kids from a massacre. I'm hoping that's not what you meant.

Pete is on the verge of his daily nervous breakdown when Charlie Novela interrupts his sixth period. Charlie is immediately sharp, sensitive—and gay. All qualities that will make his life difficult if not impossible in a school dominated by a football team that’s led the league in gaybashing for nine straight seasons.

Basically, Charlie is doomed. And if Pete can save him, then he can save anyone. Even Riley would agree.

However, Pete’s slightly heroic plans are crushed when Charlie quickly confesses some slightly homicidal feelings. Now Pete has a choice he’s not prepared to make. Either he destroys Charlie’s trust and turns the kid in, or he risks the lives of every human being on campus,
including his own.

This is a false choice. If Charlie is confessing normal teenage feelings, no one is in danger. The only reason Pete would ever be in trouble is if Charlie actually DID something...why does Pete think he would?

WHY WON’T YOU LOVE ME!? is a 69,000-word novel about the constant humiliations that can make high school a very dangerous place.

You're asking us to buy into the idea that constant humiliation makes people murderous. I'm not sure that's true other than on television. Constant humiliation makes people litigious, or makes them drop out of school.

(and in a nice touch, you spelled your name wrong which makes me laugh only because I'm always hitting the wrong key when I sign my emails too)

The tone is off here. If you're looking for a serious exploration of the high wire act faced by people who are legally required to report things they hear, you can't also have flippant things like "daily nervous breakdown." You're also relying on a very dated trope: gaybashing football team, sensitive student. I'm sure a lot of that still exists in real life, but novels have moved passed that. This story doesn't need it, because what's interesting is the burden placed on teachers after the post-Columbine zero-tolerance policies. And those apply to any student. You don't need tired old tropes. Make up some new ones.

Form rejection.


Anonymous said...

While I like to see teacher stories, this one sounds like it's written by someone who's never taught--and didn't research very well, either. A school losing 1/5 of its teachers each year? Not a huge thing. Three out of every five new teachers quit within a couple of years. And, in most districts, a teacher's required to report "homicidal feelings" of a student. If they don't, they could lose their jobs AND, if that kid actually did do something (God forbid), they're liable.

Research is a very good thing.

John said...

Among the flippant things that jar against the serious issues are the jokey surnames.

Also, a card-carrying communist in the 21st century? I have visions of Harold and Maude.

Unless you're the next Joseph Heller, I'd stick to the does-he-tell-or-not conflict and cut back on the attempted wackiness.

Fake Name said...

Thank you your time. Your comments are very useful and help me see that I'm not getting to what the story is actually about.
-Name Mispelled

Aimlesswriter said...

I think this query is missing the main thrust of the story.
Is it about Charlie and his maybe attack on the school? If so move that up. First paragraph sets up our main character but then we need the issue with Charlie to come up after that IF that's the main story.
I think we need the hook to come out sooner. You waste too many words talking about apathetic students and Columbine. Give me the meat of the story. Does Pete face the actual massacre or is he going to prevent Charlie from causing one?
Or am I missing the point entirely? Is this just about being gay in a school that can't/won't accept it?
I'd love to see the rewrite. Take out everything that isn't absolutely necessary.

Lehcarjt said...

While this had interesting moments (teacher stress after Columbine got me too), I ended up feeling like it was just too much. You might think of refocusing on your hero and simplifying how you explain his journey by leaving out all the extraneous details (ie. Columbine, the social studies teacher, nervous breakdowns, his mom, the football team, etc.)

I sympathize over the name misspelling. Is there anyone who hasn't done this at least once?

Theresa Milstein said...

I agree with Query on most of this. The protagonist sounds hysterical. There's a lot of detail for a query here. I like the idea of exploring what a school feels like after an incident like this, but the way the teacher reacts doesn't seem authentic.

"Only Riley manages to make any sense. 'Don’t fret, Nicely. They’ll chew you up if you fret. Just try to save one or two in each class, if you can. And don’t worry, nobody is counting.'"

For the above quote, I didn't think it sounded like something a person would really say. Especially "fret", which you use twice.

PFSheckarski said...

"I'm sure a lot of that still exists in real life, but novels have moved passed that." If it still exists in real life, then novels have not moved past it. Perhaps publishers and editors and even readers have moved past it, but regardless of industry trends it remains within the purview of the novel itself to confront casual cruelty wherever it exists.

There are ways this author could make the "homophobic football team" trope less facile, but to avoid addressing their homophobia at all for the sake of artistic convenience seems like a kind of cowardice.

And there are PLENTY of folks who thought -- and think -- that schools' "zero tolerance" policies were created out of hysteria. Just because you're doing something "for the children" doesn't make it just, logical, or even right.

M. G. E. said...

This has been a very insightful query, and reply, on a few levels.

It touches on some subtle issues that are easy for a beginning writer to miss:

- The way to create a sympathetic protagonist and how to accidentally destroy that sympathy.

- Tone must match the source material. Too often sounding flippant is mistaken for verve and voice.

- The danger and difficulty of tying your narrative to a traumatic news-event like Columbine. I think this may even put a lot of readers off in the first place, those who don't want to deal with this memory.

- And the need to be in touch with what's genuinely new and what's already been written. That's perhaps the hardest part for some of us whom perhaps don't read as much as we should :P

But clearly, if you make the mistake of writing a novel that may have gotten published a decade ago but has no chance today, that's a lot of wasted effort.

The reminder to 'create a new trope' is the key.

Irene Troy said...

One of the most frequently quoted rules of writing is “write what you know.” We could probably argue from now to doomsday the validity of this rule. In the case of this particular work, I might suggest the writer either reexamine his/her approach to the story or, perhaps, write the story from a different perspective.

I have to agree with Janet’s critique. I started out interested, but that line about “post-Columbine hysteria” turned me off immediately. Then, to follow this with the information that Pete discusses his concerns with his mother…well, this gave me a pretty negative image of a guy who still runs to mommy with every worry and fear – not a likeable character, at least not for me. I also was put off by the way the author handles the introduction of Charlie. Hopefully, in the story this character is a bit more real, current and honest. I can’t quite get my mind around why Pete is so concerned. From years of experience with adolescents (in my prior life time I worked with troubled children and adolescents) nothing about Charlie raises any red flags. In fact, he sounds fairly typical. Why would Pete think otherwise? And again, we are back to clichés: being humiliated and discounted turns a teen into a killer. In made-for-television movies, perhaps. In real life? Unlikely. Time for a rewrite.

Rachael said...

"Constant humiliation makes people litigious, or makes them drop out of school."

High school students don't get litigious. If we're not going to report it, we drop out, kick the crap out of the person, get suicidal, get homicidal, or sit there and take it until graduation. A lot of school shootings and teen suicides stem from constant bullying. The person feels trapped into it and they don't feel like there's anything they can do, so they do the only thing that can get them out of it.

Jenn McKay said...

Hey #149, I type u instead of y for my name all the time...

Can the teacher be gay and fall in love with Charlie? Or maybe the teacher is still straight, but Charlie reminds him of his son/his younger self/his brother.

I would be more sympathetic to a character who wants to be a great mentor, rather than one who wants to save someone. Not sure why that irks me a bit - maybe it's just me.

Looking forward to your revised query.

Unknown said...

Like someone above said, I'd take out all reference to Columbine. Make up a name or just reference some nebulous school shooting. Columbine wasn't just about two kids who decided to shoot up their school one day because no one liked them. Maybe I'm biased as a gamer, but most of the hysteria I saw was based on the fallacy that video games had turned these otherwise quiet outcasts into homicidal maniacs. Every time I turned around, I had to defend my hobby from the fearmongers around town, and I don't see any sign of that in your query.

Also (and this could just be me; it was a very small high school) does that constant humiliation trope really exist? In my (so very, very limited) experience, yeah there was teasing if they didn't like you, but they didn't seek you out like they do in movies. Cause, you know, they don't like you. They don't want to be around you. And you don't want to be around them, and so everyone just stays away from each other. It was a very small school I went to though. Tiny. Less than a thousand people. I could be completely wrong.

Kitty said...

the only registered Communist he’s ever pleasured himself to.

What does that mean?

JS said...

I don't know what "registered Communist" means, or could mean. I know quite a few people who self-identify as Communists, but they don't "register" with anyone--the CPUSA is too small for it to be a party one can select on one's voter registration, and the party itself doesn't keep registration rolls of members.

I also don't understand why Pete would think that being a good and supportive teacher, as Riley apparently is, would be at all related to Riley's political self-identification. It feels like a non-sequitur.

And "pleasured himself to" is icky. I presume that you're trying to convey that Pete has a romantic/sexual crush on Riley, but that locution is simultaneously coy and TMI.

I also don't get what the story arc of this book is. I read the query a few times, and here is what I'm getting:

- Pete is a teacher who is gay or bi and has a crush on his mentor teacher, Riley;

- Riley is an unconventional spirit (is he also gay or bi?);

- Charlie is Pete's student; he is gay and the target of homophobia from his fellow football players;

- Charlie confides his upset and anger in Pete, and also makes some comments that would be reportable under the school's zero-tolerance policy;

- Pete is faced with the dilemma of whether or not he should report Charlie; he's torn between his responsibility to uphold school rules (and keep his job) and his responsibility to help Charlie (and live up to the standards he feels Riley sets).

I'm left with a "then what?" here and also the feeling that the connection between Pete's romantic/sexual interest in Riley and his dilemma about how best to help a gay student (who may simply be at his wits' end with homophobia, or who may be a potential aggressor, and Pete has to evaluate which) hasn't been made.

The setup seems intriguing (despite the missteps others have noted) but I'd also suggest that you haven't gone far enough into the plot to make the query really strong. What happens?

JS said...

I also want to pick up on Irene Troy's comment:

And again, we are back to clichés: being humiliated and discounted turns a teen into a killer. In made-for-television movies, perhaps. In real life? Unlikely.

I know that the Query Shark has read (because I've seen it discussed on her other blog) Dave Cullen's incredible book Columbine. If you haven't read it yourself, I highly recommend it. One of the myths about that tragedy that Cullen thoroughly explodes is that the killers were bullied or taunted by their schoolmates.

Suze said...

Thank you JS. I thought there for a moment that my squeamishness at the 'pleasured himself to' (despite the grammar issue) bit was isolated to me. I think it could be an amusing scene in a book, but not in a query. I swear I'm not that prudish but still...

I think that the concept has a lot of promise if you re-write the query. I echo the other comments here about finding the main story and showing that in the letter.

Horserider - I fear I side with the shark on this one. Seems like every week there's a teenager making a legal case because he was asked to remove an offensive tee shirt, or was wearing too much jewelry. This week, unfortunately, it was because a girl couldn't go to the prom.

Chelsea Pitcher said...

For what it's worth, Charlie was the most interesting part of the query for me (I know! I'm disagreeing with the Shark!). I have this feeling, too, that his homicidal feelings may be just that: feelings. But I could be wrong. I'd like to know more about what happens after Charlie confesses his feelings, even if it doesn't end up in the final query. Where does the story go? You've definitely got my interest.

Dawn Alexander said...

I wanted to add a few words about the "responsibility to report" Mary Brebner mentioned in the first comment. I have been teaching high school for almost 15 years now.
A teacher privy to a student's "homicidal feelings" would DEFINITELY have an obligation to report the information. But, please understand,that does not mean calling 911. In most cases, the student would be taken to the counselor or (in the case of a large high school) a psychologist might even be on staff.
The possibility of harm to himself or others would be evaluated and he would be treated accordingly.

I include this because you seem to have the theme of the teacher wanting to "save" this kid. Making sure he received the appropriate help would support that theme.

Anonymous said...

I may be becoming *gasp* litigious. George knows I've certainly had enough humiliation to justify it.

Irene Troy said...

I feel the need to clarify something written in my first post: it is not my intent to discount the impact constant harassment and bullying has on kids. However, in my experience as a clinician, very few children or adolescents are moved to violence – against themselves or against another – due solely to being the victim of bullying. There are, of-course, exceptions, but the majority of kids who resort to violence do so because of a combination of factors that may, or may not, include bullying. This is why I find it disquieting when writers assign actions to characters that seem either clichéd or unrealistic. Fiction may be make-believe, but good fiction always has elements of essential truth.

wendy said...

I was surprised when I read the gay-bashing reference (does it still happen?) as I only recall that theme in Australia from decades ago. These days, public opinion seems to have done a 180 from what I read on the web. Those who offer the slightest criticism of the life-style or gay celebrity risk a torrent of abuse.

JS said...

wendy, please educate yourself. People are assaulted and murdered by bigots for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. (Yes, this is happening right now in Australia--a couple of days ago, a high official from the NSW Police apologized publicly for their slow response to victims of gay-bashing, including two Blacktown men who had been beaten with metal poles.)

To compare that to being argued with on the Internet is inappropriate.

_*rachel*_ said...

Congrats! You went from something I didn't even know how to comment on, to something that works!

B.E. Sanderson said...

Wow. I don't usually comment, but this was such a turnaround, I had to stop. Good job on the rewrite. Now this sounds like a book I'd be interesting in reading. Congratulations.

Lehcarjt said...

I agree, the improvements really work.

Question though... What does "And he even knows how to scan the back covers of books as if shopping in a bookstore" mean? Perhaps I'm dense, but I can't see the relevance.

Lady Epsilon said...

The 'knows how to scan the back covers of books' thing doesn't make sense to me either. Like, he just reads the synopsis instead of the book? Why is this a good quality?

Margaret Yang said...

Congrats on the revision! :::sniff::: I just love a happy ending.

Fake Name said...

Thanks for your time, Shark.

I kept checking back to make sure you haven't changed your mind.

Now I just need to figure out what to do next.

-Name Misspelled

Unknown said...

Regarding the Shark comment, "I'd read the first three pages with a query, and if that voice holds up AND it doesn't start with dreaming/driving/showering or some other static formulaic thing, . . .", is it okay to open a story with someone driving if the story is about driving or if that drive is a pivotal part of the story? I've seen this distaste for driving openings from others.

Vivian said...

Rider, you're completely wrong. Many groups of high school kids will seek out the kids they don't llike and harass them for entertainment. That's what "bullying" means. It's nice for you that you didn't have to deal with this, but others are not so lucky.

Megan Bento said...

Okay, I have to post a comment for this. If the back cover blurp (or whatever) was anything like the 2nd revision, I would go to the front of the store and buy it and start reading it right away.


Yet that may just be me. I have an obsession about school shootings (and it makes me feel guilty and awful), and even if there wasn't one in it, it makes me want to read it just by the mention of Columbine (I know almost all there is to know about it, seriously).

A teacher's take is a good one, I think, and one I don't think is normally seen. From what I've seen, most POVs are from the victim's or the victim's family's POV. (While mine that I am writing on the other hand is in the POV of the shooter and his family, it interests me the most)

Just thought I'd say that I really did enjoy the revised version of the original query. Much better.

Anonymous said...

I love the revised version of this query. It's my type of book, but this type of book might make people squeamish especially with the way the world is now.

On another note, man, how the world has changed in five years. Although the hysteria was warranted, it might have gone too far when they suspended a poor kid from eating his poptart into the shape of a gun a year or so ago. It's progressed even further. Elementary school kids can't even touch each other without the schools going bonkers. It's good to be safe, but when we strip kids from being kids, well, there's a good episode of The Simpsons during its golden age that involves school uniforms. It's worth it to check it out.