Sunday, September 5, 2010


Dear Query Shark,

Investigative reporter Avery Bonelli became Chiquita non grata when deep-cover CIA agent Logan Nash accused her of publishing national secrets and ruining his career. Two years later, Nash shows up in her apartment covered in blood, and promises a scoop that will get her back in the big leagues--all she has to do is trust him.

oh I am so in. This really works: it SHOWS rather than tells with things like Chiquita non-grata.

Following Nash’s scoop, Avery investigates a series of high profile murders with terrorism implications. Instead of finding something she can publish, she discovers that all the victims were involved in leaking a the top-secret CIA mission into her mailbox two years ago; the mission file that Nash accused her of stealing.

The difference between "a" and "the" doesn't seem like much does it? Kind of picky to notice it. Well, I do notice it.  They convey very different nuances of what the mission in her mailbox was: "a" means it is one among many, not specific; "the" is specific, the one mission that was in her mailbox. She didn't have two or ten there, she had just "the" one.  
THIS is the kind of attention to detail in your writing that I look for.  No, it doesn't make the difference in whether I will read pages, or perhaps even want to sign you as a client.

Where it makes the difference is in how much editorial work I'll have to invest to get this ready to send to an editor  You want to SHOW me your book will be as close to perfect, right down to "the" not "a."  And you do want to be that perfect. After all, this is your book, you want to get it right, don't you?

Now Avery feels the weight of a bulls-eye on her back as more people involved with the stolen file get slaughtered killed. She needs to identify the assassin and expose him before her personal obituary makes headlines. Outgunned, she trusts her life to Logan Nash even though all the evidence tells her Nash is the killer she’s trying to find.

Again, slaughtered is not the best word. It's not a synonym for "killed."  Slaughtered is the savage and excessive killing of many people. There's a quality of the impersonal in "slaughtered."
Killed is more personal, and doesn't invoke people as a group, but people targeted individually.

When I jump up and down and holler about the importance of slow editing, this is exactly what I'm talking about. Does every single word mean what you want it to mean? Does it convey exactly what you want to convey.

VICARIOUS is a 105,000-word thriller.

Enclosed is a sample chapter.

Thanks for your consideration.

I'd request pages here, no doubt about it, but fervently hoping the manuscript doesn't have more of this kind of not-quite-right word choices.

Avery Bonilla
123 Shark-Meat St.
On the corner of Acceptance Ln. and Pet Peeve Pl.
Blog Follower, NY 00000

ok, hilarious yes, but you know not to put your return address FIRST in an email query right? I've ranted about this at length.
Dear Ms. Query Shark,

Investigative reporter Avery Bonilla became Chiquita non grata when ex-CIA operative Logan Nash accused her of stealing national secrets. Two years later, Nash shows up in her apartment covered in blood, and promises a scoop that can get her back in the big leagues--all she has to do is trust him.

This is a really good opening. It's enticing. It sets up what looks like a real plot. I'm ready to like this.

Desperate to get back into journalism, Avery helps Nash investigate a terrorist bombing that killed his father and thirty-two others. She still hates him for destroying her career, but his charm makes it hard to keep her hands off his pecs and his … 21st digit. After all, she just broke off an engagement, and you can’t just go cold-turkey on men. It’s unhealthy.

And splat right here. It's hard to make a terrorist bombing sprightly and humorous. The tone of the writing (sprightly, humorous) doesn't match the content (terrorism)
But Avery uncovers a conspiracy that’s more hazardous to her health than Y-chromosome withdrawals. The terrorist attack was engineered by the CIA to protect one man from an FBI investigation: Nash’s father, chief engineer of an airborne strain of HIV. And he’s still alive. Now she’s hunted by people who believe she’s a threat to their virus project and to the terrorist’s identity. Avery becomes a subject in her own story and she’ll have to trust her life to the man who just might turn out to be the terrorist she’s been hunting.

Whoa. You want to be lighthearted about airborne HIV and bio-terrorism. Yikes. No.

VICARIOUS, a 111,000-word espionage-thriller, is Jack Reacher muscle on a Stephanie Plum diet. It’s one of five finalists in the 2010 (redacted) Contest on (redacted).

Well, one good thing about comparisons is they show instantly why this doesn't work. Stephanie Plum books are lots of fun to read of course, but you'll notice they aren't about serious topics. Jack Reacher isn't lighthearted. Yes you can pair the two but that's a platypus; nothing quite looks or feels right.

Enclosed are five sample pages.

The five pages you attached don't mention either character or any of the plot you cover in the query letter. It's as though you sent five pages that have nothing to do with this query.

That's one of the (many) problems with prologues. When you query with pages, start with chapter one, page one. Leave OUT the prologue.

Thank you for your consideration.

This is a form rejection.


nekatomenos said...

What's wrong with a fun tone on a serious topic? If anything it could make this stand apart from other "terrorism! airborne virus!" stories if done right. Are there indications in the query of why the author is not doing it right? Pointing those indications would, I think, be more useful to the author than "oh no no no, you don't joke about serious issues".

Geoff Gardner said...

QS is too funny. This is becoming my favorite blog...

Diane_Holmes said...

Dear Vicarious,

It appears you really only have two problems that are keeping you from being a Query Do: (A) weird mix of serious plot/humor character and tone, and (B) prologue.

A) It's a conundrum for those who write comedy/serious to figure out how to pitch it. I suspect that the comedy in your story comes from your character's worldview or personality. In that case, you might not mention it in the query for the same reason you wouldn't mention if your character is extremely organized or pragmatic to a fault. You just can't mention everything.

On the other hand, if it's the style of narrative, the tone of the entire story....

The only idea I have for you is to look at what other novelist's (and their publishers) have done on the back blurbs of books... or in reviews.
This is a link to a Library Thing page that contains books that have thrillers, crime, and humor tags.

B) Start with the chapter that reflects what you're pitching.

Sounds like your prologue isn't going to give Janet R. what she's hoping for, which is to be plunged into the story of the journalist and the ex-cia op.

Best wishes.

fairyhedgehog said...

I hope you get a query together that works because I have the feeling that this is something I'd like to read.

Christina Auret said...

I have to ask where you draw the line between serious and not so serious? The Stephanie Plum books are held up as an example of not so serious, but a lot of people die in Stephanie Plum novels.

So when does crime and violence of any type cross over from something you can be frivolous about to something that has to be handled in a serious manner?

Is it a matter of tone or a matter of scale or is it some combination of the two?

Or is the lighthearted tone only a no-no as far as the query is concerned?

Ann Stewart said...

"his 21st digit" I almost wet my pants! I've written romance a long time, and read it even longer, but Somehow I've missed that one all these years. I'd buy the book just to see what else the author has to say!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I deleted my comment (the former #8) because I realized I had one more thing.

A few false notes --

How does one get kicked out of journalism in this cyber-age? Anyone can set up a website, travel with a camera (hidden or not), post reports, conduct interviews, and live on advertisements, donations, and grants. That needs to be addressed.

This does not need to be addressed because it's evidently how you see things, vicarious, but I have something to say: Since this blog is about queries, not stories, I won't carry on in my usual manner about the MYTH of the sex-crazed female (cf. Frasier's Roz Doyle). I'll just state that it's an annoying myth and that a writer who is imaginative yet truthful would describe Avery's craving for affection and love -- which would be more difficult, yes. If you mean to portray Avery as exceptional in this regard -- a bit tetched -- then you might be safe.

ETA: The terrorist attack was engineered by the CIA to protect one man from an FBI investigation

Dear God, wtf?

Karo_Jachs said...

You know, there are some of us, who'd regard the love-starved female as a bit of a myth.

But I don't really care who's right in reality, (I suspect that my reality might be different from yours, and that's fine with me) - I just know that I tend to find those love-starved types fairly boring to read about after a while. I mean it's not as if they were Anna Karenina, not in this genre.

But for what it's worth, I'm pretty sure the heroine is going to discover her softer side by the end of the book, and some true love is going to emerge, because that's how these stories usually go, so you can rest secure in the knowledge that traditional gender roles will remain unchallenged in the long run.

Stephanie Barr said...

At first I was going to just say I disagreed with QS. I love humor in any kind of novel, including those with really challenging issues, but then it occurred to me that it wasn't the humor she objected to so much as the playfulness.

The story could be workable as well as the romance, even humor, but too much light-hearted levity and the heroine comes across as a callous care-for-nobody.

Serious things are happening, people are dying and more could. That part still needs to be taken seriously.

Or, at least, that's how I see it.

And, yeah, this sort of thing would interest me.

Tara Maya said...

My feeling is that once criticisms of a novel move to a higher level -- no longer, what are you trying to say, but arguing with why or whether you should say it -- it's not a bad book. One can disagree whether women crave sex, whether the CIA would kill thirty Americans, whether there can be levity in the face of terrorism, but I don't think the book is going to improve at this point by taking those criticisms into account -- except by being a different book.

I guess what I'm saying is that sometimes a reject from an agent is a clue there's something wrong with the book, sometimes it just means it's the right novel for the wrong agent.

I'm a fan of the series Chuck, which has humor, romance and terrorists. The terrorist plots are a little on the ludicrous side, which helps make the humor work.

Debra Moore said...

I seriously think this is a matter of taste on the part of the agent. She might not like the idea, but that query was awesome. I wanted to read the book! (Of course, I'm not an agent, but I am a reader, and that book sounded like something I've not read day in and day out. It was fresh and yes, it was funny. I'd buy it.)

Keep heart. Send that query to some agents. See what happens.

jjdebenedictis said...

Yeah, this could just be a case of querying the wrong agent. Most of the problems the Shark has with this letter appear to be just a matter of taste.

That said, a lot of publishing people are based in New York, and many New Yorkers were too affected by one particular terrorist act to ever consider this subject funny. I'm not sure you need to change your plot, but as is, it could be a tough sell to certain people.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, I personally think the mixing of tones could work is executed well and with sensitivity. It would take a great ear, I think.

Ocean Archer said...

QS suggested waiting a week to cool off before responding in the blog, but I'm not annoyed at all. I'm really excited about all the
the wonderful comments/advice/suggestions that everyone has given. I also wanted to clear up any potential misconceptions regarding the query's views about terrorism.

Terrorism and HIV are serious issues. I don't treat them lightly, and neither do my characters. But judging by the responses here, it looks like I failed in distinguishing the humor within the two characters' relationship from the seriousness of the underlying issues. The attempts at humor were only supposed to be in the context of the character interactions with each other. Again, it looks like I failed here, so I'll either need to:

1. revise this query and take away all signs of humor, or

2. revise this query and do a better job of disassociating relationship levity with the issues in the story.

What do you guys think?


That's a great site. Thanks for providing the link. It really helps.

QS: I've read all your postings, and knew your biggest pet peeve was opening with contact info in email queries. So I took a chance at a little personalization, and hoped it didn't raise your blood pressure :)

JS said...

The issue isn't combining humor and serious topics: the issue is combining light-hearted humor and wrenchingly serious topics.

"Terrorism" + "cute, cuddly humor" is a wrong note. Combine that with "doesn't get the thriller plotting at all right" (no, the CIA is not going to stage a terrorist attack to keep the FBI from investigating one person) and you get a dud. Not just for the shark, but for agents and editors in general.

Wit and humor about serious subjects works beautifully. But the tone has to match--James Bond can crack jokes as he dispatches international assassins, but he doesn't crack fart jokes.

If you reframed this as a comic caper novel a la Donald Westlake, you could keep the lighthearted tone ("chiquita non grata" is really wonderful) and it wouldn't clash with the Lee Child-type plot. Maybe the terrorists are bumblers? Maybe their demands are silly? If you're going to be lighthearted, stay lighthearted in the plot as well as the tone.

There are great comic novels to be written about war and murder and disease and death. M*A*S*H* and Catch-22 and The Mouse That Roared are all great examples of same.

But you can't ask the reader to be simultaneously light-hearted and deeply engaged in high-stakes drama. You just can't. You can ask the reader to be deeply engaged in high-stakes drama and also appreciate wit or gallows humor, but that's another matter.

"Hogan's Heroes" works (for the people for whom it works) because the Nazis in it are cuddly teddybears who wouldn't hurt a fly. With real Nazis it would be a disaster, unlike Inglourious Basterds which relied on bleak, surrealist humor rather than warm fuzzy good-times jokes.

I'd love to see this re-envisioned as a comic caper a la Westlake or Richard Condon or George Macdonald Fraser. But it's important to get the tone absolutely right, or you'll wind up running into the same trouble Helen Fielding (of Bridget Jones fame) did with her third novel (Olivia Joules...) which sold about six copies and probably never would have been published if she hadn't been a megaseller.

tlbodine said...

I absolutely think you can make terrorism funny. But then, I'm a big fan of "sick & wrong" and my healthy shelf full of Chuck Palahniuk testifies to that. Also, anybody ever see the movie American Dreamz? I was watching that last night and it definitely puts a humorous spin on the whole thing.

That said...I'm not sure I'm sold on this. I think the particular tone of the humor might still be off -- for me. Which is the tricky thing about humor, that it is so subjective. I'd be interested to see pages, though, to see how the humor actually plays in the story.

Zoe said...

I think for me, the problem is not so much the coexistence of a humorous tone and a grave subject, but that they are not woven together in a way that really works. In the first paragraph I thought I was reading a query for a suspense thriller, and in the second paragraph I thought I was reading a query for a Harlequin romance, and the switch from one to the other was a little sudden.

I think the apparent dichotomy could be fixed by revealing more of the character's internal process in response to the serious subjects at hand so that we can see more than one side of her. Another option would be to introduce humor into the query sooner (not in the return address) so that everything blends together.

Joshua McCune said...

Like many of the others said, I think this could be an agent preference thing. Personally, it's not my cup of tea... Regardless, I think you should focus more on the romance aspect and less on the terrorist plot in your query b/c I think that's where your strengths lay.

And, personally, I'm wondering why the hell anybody would be cooking up an airborne strain of HIV (except for ethnic or anti-social bio-terrorists, because they always do crazy shit)... know thrillers tend to go a bit overboard (with the CIA frequently playing the sideways heavy), but this plot point seems to have jumped into shark infested waters.

All that being said, I think you've got the hardest part of your writing down (i.e., voice -- assuming your story's style = your query's style)... kudos.

Theresa Milstein said...

I have a two-page prologue, which I've been submitting with my five pages. It's good to know I should leave it out.

I'm curious if chapter one strikes a good balance between wit and serious.

Livia Blackburne said...

I love query shark, but in this case I'll throw my towel in with the people here who think humor might work. I can't think of any books that do it, but the films "Get Smart" and "Iron Man" both tackle terrorism/war, etc in a lighthearted way.

dana e donovan said...

I'm with Bane of Anubis on this one. The airborne HIV angle doesn't make sense to me. Maybe in the 80`s it would have. A super strain of airborne anthrax might make more sense as a terror weapon today.

And as for the CIA pulling off the terror attack? That's very hard to swallow. Going to war over fabricated evidence and losing 4000+ souls...maybe not so hard.

Perhaps it could be the work of an evil secret government agency no one knows about, like Halliburton.

The comedy thing, I don't know. I like the author's voice. As long as she keeps the humor strictly between Avery and Logan, say to vent sexual tensions, and keep a serious tone when addressing the whole terror issue, it might work. As Janet said, it worked in M*A*S*H.

Orlando said...

The story sounds very interesting and sellable. With that in mind you should keep in mind what you want your Query Letter to represent.

Your Query Letter should demonstrate the style of writing used in the novel. Therefore to remove the humor from the query letter and resending it would not fix the issue if the novel is written to include this type of humor.

The Agent is going to want to see the seriousness or humor demonstrated in the query letter also reflected in novel. What you have to decide now is; should you...

1- Change the query letter.
2- Edit your novel.
3- Send your query to other agents.

Adam Heine said...

I think the prologue-as-sample-pages depends on the agent as well. I've seen other agents online say they want to see pages 1-5, prologue or no.

Both opinions make sense. The Shark wants to see the story she's just read about in the query. Others may want to see where the author believes the story starts (i.e. the prologue).

Anonymous said...

Nobody's raised the question of whether a novel ought to have a prologue, though. It's a much-discussed issue. A novel ought to start in media res; your first page needs to draw the reader into the story. Prologues tend to be set years before the novel's action, often with different characters or even no characters.

(Obviously, you can have a prologue if you want one. But I think they make the book a harder sell.)

Ocean Archer said...

Wow, what great participation on this query. I'm really flattered. This site has been so helpful.

It made me see a plot hole in my query. It's actually not the CIA itself that set up the bombing, but rather rogue members within the agency and also within other branches of the government. I was afraid it would get too wordy, but now I realize holding the entire CIA organization responsible for a conspiracy to commit domestic terrorism is not realistic.

I reveal the reason for creating an airborne strain of HIV in the synopsis, but not the query. Now I wonder if I should. I'm interested on seeing you guys' opinion, so here's the scoop: The Pentagon originally started HIV testing to be used as a weapon in the 60s for the Vietnam War. Started off with field tests in African villages, and eventually implemented in North Vietnam, but it didn't work--killed too slowly and too hard to contract. This coincides with reports of HIV's initial presence on the national radar in the late 60s. Politics changed, and an underground movement of radical globalists, led by Logan's father, found a cure for HIV. They also mutated HIV to be airborne (theoretically very possible). Their goal is to enforce population control and kill off lower-class citizens (the exact political motivation is more complex).

If I included all that in the query, the word-count would skyrocket. If it's interesting enough and would add needed plot flavor to the query, then I'll find a way to do it in less than 50 words. Otherwise, I may edit HIV out of the current query and just say deadly virus? Dunno. What do you guys think?

Ocean Archer said...

To the people who like the humor: Thanks! I'm glad I was able to make you laugh. But it's pretty apparent that the tone is off for the query. I'll need to fix that. This is an espionage thriller that has some comic relief moments. What sets it apart from (most) others in this genre is not its humor, but because it's narrated in first person through a female character.


Thanks for that link to Brandsford's blog. It was very educational. But I noticed he wanted to receive prologues in PARTIAL REQUESTS. He didn't mention whether or not prologues should be sent as the sample pages in queries.

Thanks again for such great pointers from everyone!


St0n3henge said...

I don't mind a little sick humor myself, and I like the author's unique voice, here.

But that's because it is a short query and not a whole novel. If I were already into a novel and got to the part where a character has to tell his family that he's gotten HIV just by breathing, and any of them could already have it, ANY humor at all in that scene would be unwelcome.

I don't think that "difference in taste" accounts for the rejection of the query. I think Janet may be looking ahead to imagine a whole book written in that voice, possibly a 9-11 type scene of disaster written in that same light-hearted voice. Obviously that would be impossible to stomach. If other agents get this idea the book is sunk.

I wouldn't leave the humor out, though, because it is what makes the voice unique. I would try Door #2: try to disassociate the humor from the horror.

Adam Heine said...

Oo, good point, Ocean. I hadn't noticed that.

Anonymous said...

The Pentagon originally started HIV testing to be used as a weapon in the 60s for the Vietnam War. Started off with field tests in African villages

Little better than domestic terrorism by the CIA. You can throw Tuskegee airmen at me until the cows come home. I still think this plot is nuts.

Alice Gabathuler said...

@ocean: You got me. I'd read the book.

Me, Myself and a Rubik'S Cube said...

I read these and usually don't comment but today I'll add my two cents worth.

I re-read the query. I still feel like the sprightly attitude does not match the tone of anything preceding. It feels like one kind of book trying to be something else.

I'd try "but his charm makes it hard to keep her distance."

Casey said...

Was the contact information there when the query was received? Because that was the only thing that really stuck out at me in the query: the cutesy return address irritated me.

M. G. E. said...

A prologue shouldn't be necessary unless you're doing some hardcore fantasy, scifi, or perhaps mystery where the events about to be shown wouldn't make any sense without some brief prelude.

And even then it should be kept small, like, two paragraphs? I'd say?

Anything set in modern times doesn't need any fancy setup.

As for the plot, I found it offensive and implausible. HIV as an airborn weapon... the whole world would be infected. And I'm glad you explained it was rogue agents, because that removed the offense, somewhat.

Do some more research on biological weapons. A suitable bio-weapon has to meet some strict requirements, and HIV fails all of

Irene Troy said...

Okay folks – perhaps I am alone here, but it seems to me an important point is being missed: Janet is the agent, not us. Presumably, she not only knows good writing when she sees it, she also knows what sells and what probably won’t. If the tone of the proposed book follows the tone outlined in the query – and it should – and an agent suggests the tone is off, or at least not easily marketed, then I’d pay close attention. Does this mean that if an agent tells you to change your book you should immediately chuck what you have and do a re-write? Of-course not, but arguing with an agent or disregarding an agent’s advice is not terribly smart either.

Personally, terrorism as humor doesn’t work for me. Or, at least it doesn’t work in a serious piece of fiction. The author identifies this piece as “espionage-thriller”. That’s serious fiction, not light-hearted fluff, or at least this is my understanding. At least for purposes of a query, it might work better if you leave out some of the humorous overtone and concentrate more on the “thriller” part of the novel. Like other posters, I see the germ of a pretty good story in this query, but, at the moment I have to agree this is something like a platypus. (Love that analogy, BTW)

D.N.Frost said...

Fantastic work. For me, the query is a bit jarring, because the transition from serious world issues to humorous relationship parley was sudden and poorly executed, but I'm interested. I would read this novel, and from your description, Ocean, I would like this novel.

You've heard a lot of clamoring already on the humor/serious subject, so I'll keep it brief: Make the distinction more distinct. Segue better, and lighten up on the humor in the query. The query has to represent the tone for your whole novel; if the novel is serious with moments of levity, don't overrepresent the humor by making one of your only three paragraphs lighthearted.

Great job, really. I think if you just ease up on the humor in the query, so it's a splash of levity (like in your novel) rather than a deluge that makes the remaining paragraph of plot seem utterly surreal, you're in business. Honestly, after reading Shark's comments and those posted afterward, it seems like your heavy-handedness when mixing in the humor was the only thing people took issue with.

Things like "I don't think the CIA would stage a terrorist attack" or "I don't think the Pentagon would try to create an airborne strain of HIV" are subjective. This seems like a conspiracy thriller, less so than an espionage one. Espionage generally makes me think of backdoor deals in foreign countries, whereas the issues you've described are more domestically dastardly. Suspension of disbelief is required in any work of fiction; of course, some conspiracy theories are really out-there, but if you build yours from the ground up and show all the evidence for it, taking your readers there could be a fun ride.

It's fiction. Screw the "plausibility" of the alignment of nebulous bureaucratic factions. Just instill the doubt early: just how much do we know about what the CIA's up to? What pots does the FBI have its fingers dipped into? Where does all that money go when the Pentagon lists it as unaccounted for?

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but there are information gaps and black holes in the real world that allow for people to get into a story like this. It sounds like you've given it a lot of thought, and I for one am thoroughly intrigued.

Keep up the excellent work, and I can't wait to see your renovated and more representative query!

Livia Blackburne said...

"HIV as an airborn weapon... the whole world would be infected"

...Uhhh, correct me if you have more accurate information on the biological weapons industry, MGE, but from what I've heard *most* biological weapons are developed as aerosols.

HIV might be bad because of its long incubation period, but I don't see any problems with it being airborne. And the "everybody being infected" bit could easily be avoided by just having the virus degrade after a certain amount of time.

flibgibbet said...


Thanks for being brave enough to submit your query. I so love this blog.

In your first response you wrote: "Terrorism and HIV are serious issues. I don't treat them lightly, and neither do my characters..."

And that's what I think your query is missing. As written, it sounds like your MC is only concerned about her career, and saving her own life (which I'm sure is not true in the novel).

I think you could keep most of the humor if you show/add her earnest reaction of horror to her discoveries. I.E., the moment this becomes more than a selfish opportunity for self-advancement, and/or a romantic romp. (Otherwise known as the character arc).

Also, if your first five pages do not match the query, I agree with Janet that something is amiss. Is the prologue you sent a frame? Or is it backstory? Can the novel stand alone without it, or is the info presented necessary to understand the story? (It sounds illogical, but it should be able to stand alone).

Once again TY for your bravery.

Anonymous said...

Remora said:
Screw the "plausibility" of the alignment of nebulous bureaucratic factions.

Remora, take another look at M.G.E.'s comment. The first adjective is "offensive." I said the plot was "nuts," and I meant it in the very worst sense. This plot is more than implausible; it's delusional.

Isobelle Clare said...

For those who are worried about plausibility - try vampires living among humans (Twilight) or a school for wizards (Harry Potter. I don't think it matters if the concept is relatively implausible, as long as it's executed in a convincing and consistent way.

I think this relates to the other problem with the query too - you can be much more subtle in a book than you can in a three-paragraph query. It seems to me that Ocean's book probably does not make light of serious topics, but trying to squeeze everything in you have some uncomfortable bedfellows (so to speak).

Incidentally, as an Australian, I take objection to the platypus comment :) You can expect to receive correspondence from the Marsupial Anti-vilification Society shortly.

wizardonskis22 said...

People have been talking about how unrealistic the plot is, but that might not be such a problem. It's not considered normal, for instance, for teenage boys to go around finding dragon eggs, but that happens in the book Eragon. Sure, that's fantasy, but it goes for other fiction as well. When people write fiction, they don't generally write about something that happens every day. Part of what's interesting about some books is that they're not about something normal. I see nothing in here that is not possible, or even too unlikely. The story sounds great to me, and much more plausible than perfect, sparkly vampires being explained by chromosomes, and the author of that series got millions of dollars and a movie deal. The humor thing could survive a bit of untangling, but I think you're doing great. Good luck!

Beth said...

What do you mean, dissing the platypus? I like them, I think they are cool. Plus, they are real, so they look & feel right for a platypus. :-)

Standing up for the maligned platypus :-) ... Beth

Ocean Archer said...

Those of you who don't think the plot is plausible: Thank you for your opinion. People have mentioned that vampires and dragons aren't plausible, but when plots are based on real life events, they MUST sound plausible on the surface. I'm no expert, but as an avid reader, I can suspend disbelief in a fantasy world, but if it's something I can relate to in MY world that doesn't make sense, then I won't read the book.

Your criticisms are very valid. That's what's so great about critiques. It opens my eyes to different perspectives. I think the plot will be plausible once you read the entire story, BUT if the summary doesn't sound plausible, you won't even buy the book. Some can suspend disbelief right away, while others cannot. I can't afford to alienate those people whether it's agents or bookstore customers. I'll find a way to make the query sound plausible to a skeptic.

Thanks for the wonderful feedback!

My supporters: Thanks for your backing!

Patrice said...

I think that Stephanie Plum as an example is telling. I just started reading the Janet Evanovich books, and have advanced from No. 1 to No. 2, and am now skipping to No. 13. She began them about 15 years ago, so her writing has probably changed over time, but her earnings last year were $16 mill, so she's clearly been selling a few books per year for some time.

On first reading, I found Plum a little crass (a lot crass), and the subject matter pretty brutal. There are messy deaths all over those books. But while the main character reacts to them with an airy kinda "Jersey girl" attitude, it is clear that she is very frightened personally when the threats come close.

In other words, it's all in the telling. A smart, sexy woman protagonist who can deliver some snarky dialog while helping to solve serious crimes works for me. Ocean sounds plenty sharp enough to write such a story -- if anything I think she is trying too hard in the query and should dial it back a bit. Let it flow naturally. Tell it like you would tell the story to a friend.

I think we'll be reading about you in a year or so.

Good luck!

M. G. E. said...

"...Uhhh, correct me if you have more accurate information on the biological weapons industry, MGE, but from what I've heard *most* biological weapons are developed as aerosols."
- I have been doing research on the topic for a thriller of my own. So it's pretty fresh in the mind.

Sure, weapons like anthrax are aerosols, but that's a pretty unique bug that stores as a dry powder in the form of spores. Specially treated to get that way too. HIV could not be powderized.

HIV is a far more delicate virus outside a wet environment. Simply exposing it to air or drying it out can kill it, IIRC. Regular cleaning products can deactive it pretty easily. It travels in fluids because of that.

You could make a wet aerosol out of it, sprayed droplets, but it wouldn't be as effective as a dry one that floats on the wind.

But more important than that, Ocean said they created a "mutated" version that spread via airborne pathogen, similar to how smallpox and the common-cold spreads.

Anyone making that is TSTL because airborne HIV wouldn't simply infect the people you unleashed it on, airborne HIV would inevitably spread throughout the entire human population precisely because it has such a long incubation period (by contrast, smallpox was only stopped because of its short incubation period).

Lastly, the comment about testing it out in Africa and the like is extremely offensive because it plays directly into the loony real-world accusation that HIV was created by the government for the purpose of racial killing. And the idea that anyone would have a cure for AIDS and not publish it is also quite offensive because of the implied racial angle.

I know it's fiction and all, but I think you may be crossing a political line in reinforcing actual hate propaganda that's false or without evidence. I'd say the same thing about a book whose premise is the CIA distributing cocaine in black neighborhoods, or saying that 911 was a government conspiracy and done by US agents.

JS said...

Things like "I don't think the CIA would stage a terrorist attack" or "I don't think the Pentagon would try to create an airborne strain of HIV" are subjective.

Nobody is saying that--they (I, at least) are saying that the CIA might stage a terrorist attack, but the stakes would have to be higher to warrant that than calling the FBI off an investigation into a single person.

That's not subjective, that's sheer logic. I mean, yeah, you could kill a mouse with a Sherman tank, but nobody's going to do it.

Now, as Ocean elaborated, it was clear that the above wasn't exactly what was happening, but it was absolutely not subjective that the way it was presented in the query didn't make sense.

Ocean, I think you are absolutely on the right track here--you need to make your query tell the story and convey the tone. This is challenging, because you have a complex story and you are writing humor about deadly serious topics. The first draft of the query doesn't work, because the plot comes off as a muddle and the tone comes off as too cutesy for the seriousness of the topics.

In addition to some of the other authors I have already mentioned, I think that Charlie Stross and Scarlett Thomas and Jeff Somers are three authors who do get the "being witty about deadly serious stuff" absolutely right. I bet you can do it, too.

wizardonskis22 said...

Ocean, you're right, it definitely has to be more plausible than dragons and vampires. Those were just an easy example, but you could take other examples, I just don't read enough of this genre to think of any. What I meant was that it sounds perfectly plausible to me, and the point of fiction is either that it hasn't actually happened (but could, unless it's fantasy), or that you stick a character in a situation that did occur. I didn't intend to suggest that your story was akin to fantasy, because it's much more realistic than that. Those were just extreme examples. I think you're doing a great job, and that any objections about the realism of it seem to be unfounded. Actually, it sound like it could make a good movie.

Violet said...

Remember Life is Beautiful? That movie started out quite funny. Not Daffy Duck funny, but humorous, nonetheless.

I love this query...what's wrong with infusing some humor in a serious topic? It's an intriguing story and the query is well-written.

My2Cents said...

I agree with Query Shark. People don't feel like joking when it comes to terrorism, they want to drink blood :)
The book would be too controversial and too risky to publish.

Honestly, I don't understand how could anybody joking with the Vietnam war like in "Good Morning Vietnam", but I guess it was not the houses and villages of the Americans that has been burned down and it was not their families wiped out, but 9/11 and terrorism is too close to home for even the most rotten individual to joke about.

D.N.Frost said...

JS: Thank you! You took the single line I wrote and you explained exactly how I meant it--because you're right, there is an issue of logic and non sequitur in the query, which is why Ocean wants to rewrite it. I was trying to express that her plot sounds feasible and exciting from how she described it in the comments, and that the query was lacking that sense of feasibility. You took my poorly-worded encouragement and expounded upon it; thanks to you, I believe we're all on the same page here. Many thanks.

Ocean Archer said...

This topic made it onto Nathan Bransford's blog entitled How to Deal With Contradictory Query Advice:


you were right, after all :)


Thanks for your support! You trust that I can weave a plausible plot, and I appreciate that :) My previous post was simply acknowledging the counter argument regarding plausibility and that I need to improve my query so the skeptics can also believe in it.


You're right: HIV in this novel is mutated to be airborne. It's intended to be a global killer. Ebola, Hanta, etc., kill too fast. HIV's long incubation period would create the perfect pandemic if it can be airborne. The purpose--it's complicated. But if the villains can strike a nerve and be offensive ... I do hope my readers will root against them. And I can only hope the plot can stir up some controversy, or at the very least, dialog. A conspiracy theory about HIV can't compare with Christ's mortality and his blood descendants, but publicity drives sales. Just sayin'

Anonymous said...

>>Desperate to get back into journalism...

I ask again, how can an investigative reporter be kept out of journalism? All she needs is her nose and a blog. Since Avery's "desperation" is the reason she agrees to help Nash, you've still got a major logic hole.

Anonymous said...


I can see your writer being shunned if she goes the way of say, a Jason Blair (worked for the NY Times and resigned in disgrace after it was found that he fabricated and plagiarised his stories). Let her work for a really bad tabloid (An alien impregnated me! etc.) and if this story pans out, she could win a Pulitzer LOL. I'd really like to see this work. Please let us know about your progress. If you've got a blog, I'd definitely become a member!

Ocean Archer said...


You make a great point. While blogging about something can be considered journalism, it's not investigative reporting, which is the cream of the crop in the world of journalism. More accurately, Avery is desperate to get back into investigative journalism. I considered writing it this way, but decided using the word investigative twice in close succession didn't sound right. There's no substitute b/c that's the job title. I felt that saying 'journalism' by itself, in the context of getting back to a previous profession, is sufficient to let the reader know she wants to get back to investigative journalism.

If you have any ideas on how I can improve that section, I'd love to try to implement it.


M. G. E. said...

On a positive note, Ocean, the humor in this query was superlative.

Anonymous said...

Gah, stupid computer issues. Comment take 2 (and shorter).

Ocean, you've got a great voice, interesting plot and characters, and it appears the ability to constructively take and use criticism. These are great strengths and you should do well if you work at it. i.e., you go, girl! (ah, assuming you're a girl).

As to humour, I believe it can be used with intense/negative topics, but with care and, well, flair. Only the best can joke about the worst.

imo humour can be a great way to release emotional intensity, just look at the relational closeness of tears and laughter. So personally I don't conceptually reject the idea of humour with terrorism and/or HIV. But the proof would be in the pudding, so to speak. Would have to be done very well.

But from the sound of it, the book is more balanced than your query and you'll be working on the query so this was just commentary.

Thanks to everyone for the comments. It gave me some nicely deep contemplative musings on humour.

Unknown said...

Why will QS repeatedly post queries that violate rules as such listing the address on top? She has said before that she will not waste her time on people who violate this rule, and yet she posts these critiques, which obviously takes up her valuable time and keeps her from looking at the queries that are waiting in her inbox!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the insight with the Prologue/Chapter 1 issue. I've been wondering about that one for quite a while now.

Thank you for clearing that up!

Anonymous said...

Ocean, investigative journalism is journalism in which the reporter conducts investigations. Independent investigative journalists have been around forever; you don't have to be employed by a major network or newspaper to do the job. Recently, Hannah Giles, James O'Keefe, and Andrew Breitbart are three independent journalists who started from nothing and got federal funding for ACORN cut. The blogger known as "zombie" is another independent investigative journalist who caught Reuters photoshopping images in the Middle East. A blogger named Charles Johnson almost single-handedly brought down Dan Rather with his expose of CBS's false evidence of George Bush's supposed draft evasion. Matt Drudge is an independent journalist who outed Monica Lewinsky's semen-stained dress. Michael Totten is sending superb dispatches from front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq. Robin Wright was another independent journalist for years. Those are just the ones I know of, and I don't know spit. If your heroine is "desperate," she sure doesn't act like it.

Ocean Archer said...


This is a different issue. The address on top was a (bad) attempt at personalizing the query with humor. I was trying to show QS I followed her blogs and knew her biggest pet peeve was the address thing. I put my real address at the bottom, but that part didn't make it on the post.


Thanks for your support. Yes, I do love criticism because it really helps to improve my writing. I've workshopped the heck out of Vicarious with dozens of beta readers, so my skin's pretty callused already. The only time I'd get annoyed by criticism is if someone doesn't tell me why s/he doesn't like something.


Thanks again for the information. It's very helpful. Avery has a credibility issue after getting accused of stealing and publishing classified intel that led to the capture of U.S. soldiers (Logan Nash's company). She's an innocent journalist set up to take the fall. Congressional inquiry, federal indictment, etc. finished her. So she gets a job writing tabloids.

That's all back story, and I don't think it's appropriate for a query, but I like your observation that she doesn't appear desperate. I'll try to improve on the next query to show more desperation. Thanks for continuing to work with me.


Anonymous said...

Actually, I've noticed the word "desperate" in a lot of queries, and often the character is said to be "desperate" for something that doesn't really sound worthy of desperation.

Perhaps it would serve the query better to change the word, rather than to try to convince us that she is desperate.

Rikhia said...


Congrats on getting your query up! I guess I am just ranting because mine never made it to the blog :(

pulp said...

Humor + terrorism? Why not? We've got humor + murder, humor + zombies, humor + sex + romance + vampires, and a whole boatload of other combinations that didn't used to go together. Like green + blue, or red+ pink, or turquoise + brown, one year they're the nadir of poor taste, the next they're the apex of fashion.

I'm also writing a humor + weighty topic novel, and it's hard to get a grip on the voice and tone. I'm writing it because I consider successful examples of humorous treatments of weighty topics to be tonic for the spirit.

I like this query and I think it will find a home.

Anonymous said...

hey, Pulp, don't forget the humour + *romance* + zombies. Which I guess just shows that anything is possible. (I hesitate to wonder if there's sex in those books O,o guess my prejudices are showing)

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the voice of the MC in this query. I saw that you posted a revised query (removing all signs of humor) with sample chapters on your blog. At first I was going to tell you it was a mistake to get rid of the voice, but after reading your sample chapters, I think you made the right move.

Don't be tempted to send your 'humorous' query to any other agents. It's not a matter of taste and who likes the humor because it's not representative of your character. The voice in your query reminds me of S. Plum. But from what I can see in your sample chapters, Avery has a snarky, snazzy voice (which I love), but it's completely different from Plum. Based on your query, I expected silly, almost slapstick material. Not so.

I love what I've read so far, and wish I can read more. I just love Avery's voice. It's not everyday you see a thriller narrated by a snarky female protagonist. And you really hooked me with all your plot twists in the opening chapters. You do a great job of showing the twisty nature of your story with the twists in your query. Hurry up and get published!

Ocean Archer said...

I finally submitted my revisions (had to take some time off for work and our first baby). Thanks again everyone for your help.

The Morrigan's Pet said...

I'm bothered by the patently illegal nature of the CIA plot. Not to mention that it's perfectly insane in a political sense and assumes CIA doctrine contravenes moral compunction with respect to mass murder, which is a bizarre concept to anyone the least familiar with their operations. It's not what they do. Period.

Stephanie Barr said...

I kinda liked the first query, but I think you've done the right thing focusing on the murders and the plot. The romance aspect is not a stretch to see coming, but it no longer distracts from the more deadly excitement.

Seems like it might be a bit wordy, but, if it works, that might not stand in your way.

Jo-Ann said...

Author - congratulations for both the new baby and getting a "yes" from the Shark.

The revision is much slimmer and focuses only on the thriller aspect. I'm wondering whether the manuscript was also edited as a result of the comments, or if it was left as is.

Ocean Archer said...

Thanks Jo-Ann. Baby's doing great. But it makes it hard to devote more than a couple hours a week to writing.

Yes, I did revise the MS to introduce the antagonist earlier, and also to chop off some stuff to bring down the word count. It was unrelated to the comments here. The first query is still representative of one of the storylines in the MS.

K.L. Layton said...

Thank you so much! I finally found out by reading this if I should use the prologue when the agent asks for a query letter and the first "whatever" pages. I have looked everywhere for this answer. THANK YOU!