Sunday, January 9, 2011

#194-REVISED 4x

 Dear QueryShark, 

1967. A nameless, but essential feeling tantalizes eighteen year old Nick Alexander to join the Marine Corps. Nick thinks, hopes, that the Corps will provide crucial qualities that he knows he lacks, such as discipline, and also others that he senses he needs, but can’t articulate. Manhood, with all of its trials, is beckoning through the fog, but first Nick needs to defeat Parris Island. Then survive Vietnam.

A nameless but essential feeling is so abstract as to be meaningless. If you delete that whole sentence you're much better off. 

Manhood beckoning through the fog doesn't give us any insight at all. The purpose of a metaphor is to make us see something we know in a different light, or describe something so we see it with fresh eyes. This does neither.

Vietnam. Nick and Rod Moss patrol on the same fire-team, and become the tightest of friends. Nick and Lien, the young Vietnamese woman he saves from being raped, become lovers.

Before his tour of duty started, Nick wasn’t sure how he would be affected by the hungry war. But when Rod gets shot and Lien becomes pregnant, Nick discovers the true meaning of friendship, love and Semper Fi.

There's nothing at stake here, it's just a series of events.

I proudly served in the United States Marine Corps for four years, and feel that my Marine experiences provide authenticity and grit to SUMMER OF LOVE, complete at 78,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

There's nothing compelling or enticing here. Any book on VietNam is going to have to surpass Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, one of the best books on VietNam of the last 10 years.  So far, this query does not demonstrate that it will.

Dear QueryShark,

Eighteen year old Nick Alexander is struggling to cope with the Age of Aquarius, Vietnam, anti-war protests, virginity in a time of free love, cultural revolution, an abusive mother, no father, and a lack of confidence. Other than that, everything is groovy. His solution: the Marine Corps. The next four years will either be the adventure of a lifetime, or the end of his young life. Nick is hoping for the former.

This is the only paragraph you'll want to keep:
Vietnam. Surviving seems simple enough - mix two parts of Marine training with three parts of good luck. But someone forgot to tell that to the gods of war, friendship, and love. They had their own plans for Nick.

Then tell us what the plans are in short concise sentences.

His new best friend, Rod Moss, asks Nick to be the best man when he marries after their tour of duty is up. When Rod gets shot during an ambush, Nick must save him, not an easy task when you have a rifle pointed at you. Later, after rescuing a young Vietnamese woman, Lien, from a vicious rapist, Nick is graced with love. But can they avoid a war that is always hungry, always hunting for its next meal? Through it all, Nick learns the real meaning of Semper Fi.

OR You might want to focus  on the love story here. Nick is in the middle of a war and falling in love with a woman whose country is on fire.  I'm pretty sure there are some choices and stakes here.

SUMMER OF LOVE is complete at 80,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

I still don't know what this book is really about.  You've got three main things here: Nick as a boy who wants to have an adventure; VietNam; and now the ambush shooting.

Focus on the first big choice Nick has to make and the stakes attached to that decision.  You don't have to do a lot of set up.  We don't need the virginity AND the abusive mom AND the absent dad.  We don't even need to know why Nick wants to leave home. It's logical that boys at that age do want to.

If you can't find the first big choice Nick has to make, look for his first big realization, and how that changes him, and his response to that change.

This doesn't work yet, but it's not bad writing.  It just needs focus. 

Dear QueryShark,

Eighteen year old Nick Alexander has a few problems. It’s the late sixties, and he’s struggling to cope with the Age of Aquarius, Vietnam, anti-war protests, race riots, virginity in a time of free love, cultural revolution, an abusive mother, no father, and a lack of confidence. Other than that, everything is groovy. His solution: join the Marine Corps. The next four years will either be the adventure of a lifetime, or the end of his young life. Nick is hoping for the former.

Ok, this gives us a sense of what Nick wants. There's nothing here that leaps off the page enticing me to read this because it all feels very familiar to me. There've been movies and books about VietNam galore. (Most recently MATTERHORN was one one of my sox knockers of 2010)

Vietnam. Surviving seemed simple enough - mix two parts of Marine training with three parts of good luck. But someone forgot to tell that to the gods of war, friendship, and love. They had their own plans for Nick.

You're alluding to plot here, but you've GOT to TELL me what it is.  What happens? What do the "gods of war etc." plan for him??

If the explosive times weren’t already uncertain enough, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy are murdered. Nick fears that not only his future, but also America’s, is in danger.

You've yanked us out of the realm of the personal, back into the US, and back into more global events. You've also not really said anything new: tumultuous times, got it.

I proudly served in the United States Marine Corps for four years, and feel that my Marine experiences provide authenticity and grit to this 80,000 word novel, FROM THE SUMMER OF LOVE TO VIETNAM.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

There's no plot, and I'm not enticed to read this.

I still don't know what the book is about. I still don't have a reason to care about the character. 

Form rejection.

Dear QueryShark:

The Vietnam War and the late sixties are twin fires raging across America, scorching some, changing all. Nick Alexander is about to make a decision that will change him forever. He enlists in the Marine Corps knowing he must defeat the severe mental and physical challenges of Parris Island - the rest of his life depends on it. If he flunks out of Marine Corps boot camp, Nick will always doubt himself. There will be no second chance.

Vietnam. Nick fights to survive his thirteen month tour of duty. He returns to an America convulsing with war protests and cultural upheaval, yet savoring free love. America and Nick both struggle during this tumultuous and historic time.

I proudly served in the United States Marine Corps for four years, and feel that my Marine experiences provide authenticity and grit to this 80,000 word novel, FROM THE SUMMER OF LOVE TO VIETNAM.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

This is better than the first go-round, but there's no sense of what the book is about. This is my number one rant about query letters from people who aren't making beginner mistakes (fiction novel, go to my website, sure fire bestseller etc mistakes.)

You've got to give me more than a sense of when it takes place and who the main character is. What happens to him, what choices does he make? What's the tension? What's the plot?

You cannot engage me or entice me unless you give me something to care about.

Go back and read the archives. Concentrate on the queries that got to Yes, or Win. See how they entice someone to read on. There's a list of them on the right hand side of the blog.

The single most valuable thing about this blog is you don't have to make the mistakes everyone else makes. You can learn from them and then make your own.

This is a form rejection right now.


Dear QueryShark:

It is the Summer of Love, 1967. Nick Alexander is skinny, diffident, and about to graduate from high school. He has always been afraid to fight, bullies often kicked his ass. Raised by his unwed, abusive mother, Nick is tantalized by the Marine Corps' whispered promises to provide personal validation and the center of gravity that he needs.

Personal validation and "center of gravity" is self-help speak.  Someone might say it later when reminiscing about their life, but at this moment, my guess is that Nick thinks the Corps will make him a man. Given there's a brutal bloody war on in 1967, he must be pretty desperate to become a man via the Marine Corps. Let us see that. Don't tell us. Show us.

Nick enlists, but knows he must defeat the mental pressure and physical challenges of Parris Island - the rest of his life depends on it. If he flunks out of Marine Corps boot camp, Nick will forever doubt himself. 

You don't need any of that paragraph, and the query is stronger without it. Try really hard not to explain motivation in a query.  SHOW me what someone does.

At brutal Parris Island, Nick is forged - like steel subjected to intense heat and pressure. After more combat training, Nick does well on Marine Corps tests and begins electronics schooling; the Corps is trying to teach him a skill other than killing people. Nick passes the classes with difficulty, but becomes an expert with a rifle during his annual shooting qualification.

After nearly two years in the Marine Corps, Nick is still a virgin. He thinks there should be a plaque in Marine Corps headquarters mentioning this, but smiles, wondering if it would be treated as a disaster, like the sign at Little Big Horn.

Nick meets Johanna, they make-out furiously on their first date, and talk about many things, including Nick's sexual staus

Vietnam. Nick ditches the electronics job he never liked; and with a fire-team of three other Marines, patrols local villages, where death is always lurking, watching, hoping. Every day, Nick wonders if he and his buddies, especially his new best friend, Rod Moss, will survive their thirteen month tour of duty. He also wonders if he will ever be graced, like Rod, with the love of the right woman.

Nick worries about an America convulsing with war protests, yet savoring free love. America and Nick both struggle to stay healthy and sane during this turbulent and historic time.

I proudly served in the United States Marine Corps for four years, and feel that my Marine experiences provide authenticity and grit to this 80,000 word novel, FROM THE SUMMER OF LOVE TO VIETNAM.

I look forward to working with you, Thank you for your time and consideration.

You understand there's no plot here, right?
That's trouble with thinly veiled memoirs as novels: real life doesn't provide much plot. You've got to have a plot for a book.

You have to figure out what the story is here.  What does Nick want? What's keeping him from getting it? If he does get what he wants, what bad thing is going to happen.

And go read MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes.  I think it might be the best book about VietNam I've ever read.

When you read it, you'll see that story starts when the characters arrive in VietNam. Everything up to that point is backstory.

This is a form rejection.


Nancy Kelley said...

Is this a war novel or a romance novel? If the former, why the emphasis on Nick's virginity? If the latter, then the first few paragraphs of the query should indicate that. You start by explaining how Parris Island made Nick a man then switch to a discussion of his virginity. I found that very jarring.

Orlando said...

What is the plot here, Nick's virginity or his becoming a man? How does he have to struggle to get what he needs? What happens if he doesn't get it? What is the focal point of Nick's life? That's what you have to write about or demonstrate on the query letter.

Annikka Woods said...

I'm bored already. This isn't my kind of book so if you want me to look at it, you have to catch me with the description. So far it looks like a history of just about every song out of that era I've seen, aside from the Parris Island part. Where's the action? Where's the interesting characters? Where's the PLOT? There's no focus to this story. You're all over the spectrum. Focus, eliminate the fluff, and give us a good reason why we want to read this.

Cheryl said...

Unfortunately, I can't see the plot, either. I won't hammer that since you have comments already.

Another bit of a snagger for me, how does a Marine *ditch* his job when he goes to war? Usually soldiers still do what they are trained to do, even in a war. Infantry is still infantry, engineers are still engineers, etc. I would just remove that reference. It's not out of the realm of possibility but the way it's written makes me think you don't know much about the military (which may be untrue). If I'm thinking that, I'm wondering how much more of the book is resting on fudged knowledge of the military. Military people dont' like when you fudge.

I used to hate watching military movies because the sounds they gave to weapons or terms they used were always wrong. They've gotten much better since I was kid.

M. G. E. said...

If the author was shooting for a more literary examination of Nick, I can see a case for beginning before the war. It doesn't have to be an "action movie" that starts with Vietnam just because it has Vietnam as a setting.

Apart from that, there's some very basic grammar mistakes, instant red flags. An agent is looking for a reason to discard your query and move to the next one.

"He has always been afraid to fight, bullies often kicked his ass."
- Comma-spice, two sentences mashed into one. You could and probably should use a semi-colon there instead.

"Nick ditches the electronics job he never liked; and with a fire-team of three other Marines..."
- Perhaps ironically, this is a place where you should not have used a semi-colon, but just a regular comma.

Lastly, there's some double-telling:
"At brutal Parris Island, Nick is forged - like steel subjected to intense heat and pressure."
- You can say he was forged, or you can say he felt as if he were subject to intense heat and pressure...etc., but you can't put both in. It reads like you're insulting our intelligence, assuming we can't construct the metaphor for ourselves.

Resist the urge to explain.

Subject-wise, I think this would have a better chance at being picked up if it involved a modern conflict like Afghanistan or w/e.

Anonymous said...

There may be a plot here, but it's too hard to tell. Looking at the verbs you're using: Nick "thinks," Nick "meets," Nick "wonders" and "wonders" can see why the plot isn't coming across.

If you re-work the query in terms of the verb phrases Nick "chooses" and Nick "struggles," you'll get more on track.

A3Writer said...

This query is on the long side, nearly reaching 400 words. It really needs to be condensed down. For example, does the agent need to know about the electronics training only to have Nick ditch it later on?

I agree with the Shark that there's too much backstory here. We don't need Nick's personal biography before there's a story. Focus on the plot and how Nick interacts with it. What are Nick's choices and the consequences of them?

Nick Lewandowski said...

I agree with both Nancy and Orlando.

More immediacy is required, as is evidence of a more structured plot - which, as the Shark mentioned, is most likely going to occur in Vietnam.

To start it might help to think about how serving in Vietnam changes Nick, then go back and pin-point the events most influential in effecting that change.

The virginity subplot could work well in the novel itself (I kind of like it as showing the difference of the "trappings" or manhood as opposed to the stark reality that Nick experience in Vietnam), but unless it is an absolutely pivotal element I would leave it out of the query.

It may be worth taking a look at something like Walter Dean Myers' Fallen Angels, too. Even though that novel is technically YA it touches on many themes related to coming of age in the Vietnam War.

Best of luck!

Becca C. said...

I was under the impression that the Summer of Love was 1969... I could very well be wrong though, considering that only one of my parents had been born by that year xD

Vivian said...

I'm thinking that maybe there's a plot, but the author forgot to tell us about it. I agree that the story starts when Nick arrives in Vietnam, and the back story isn't really the thing to focus on in a query letter.

Theresa Milstein said...

For a short time, I joined a critique group of people writing disguised memoirs. The problem with their manuscripts, which I see here, is events or situations interesting to them wound up having long, detailed scenes that did nothing to advance the story.

Using real life to make a WIP more believable adds dimension but sometimes it becomes the story instead.

Your book may not have this problem, but your query does. If you can answer QS questions, then you just need to rewrite the query. If you can't, then you need to rethink your protagonist's goals and obstacles. Good luck!

Jo-Ann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Becca, could be and are. It was 1967.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I think the issue here is that the author is trying to fit every plot point from the book in the query, as emphasized by the "and then this happens" structure. However, we still get no real sense of what the novel is about, and it seems like a series of events with no underlying theme, connection, or direction. Tell us why it matters that Nick joins the USMC, is a virgin, doesn't like his electronics job, wonders about the US, etc. What does this mean for him? Why should we care? What is this all leading up to? (At the same time, you don't want to go too deep into this, to the point where you're explaining the themes in the query.)

John Jack said...

By 1967 the antiwar movement was in full swing, but not crowned until the Kent State shootings in 1970. The Summer of Love, as mentioned, was in 1969.

If there's one larger good that came out of the Vietnam war, it was the abolition of the draft, though temporary. And not forgetting the U.S. had tragically overlooked asymetrical warfare's power to frustrate a well-equipped, well-trained, able superior force.

But the war also disabused the U.S. public of a general trust in authority. Military, government, and police especially. And has never recovered the public trust.

The middle 20th century was a sweeping Postmodern social upheaval on a grand and hopeful runaway course questioning and challenging presupposed and imposed notions of good old boy bubba WASP proper citizen propriety and behavior, including the entrenched status quo, the establishment. Vietnam galvanized the Postmodern Baby Boomer generation now reaching retirement age.

My young experiences at the time were conflicted by rabid anticommunist patriotic ideologies and rabid devotion to disestablishmentarian patriotic ideologies and rabid Save our Sons patriotism.

The extremes I encountered were some peers wanting desperately to come of age and join up and go over and kill them some commie gooks and some wanting to kill them some baby killing GIs and mommas willing to immolate themselves to make a statement. And sides taken up everywhichaway in between.

It took me half a century to reconcile the ups and downs and sideswipes of the war and the times to my private satisfaction. I think that's what this present age needs in terms of healing. But, no, Vietnam is all but forgotten; unforgiven, unrequited, and best left to history's blinders.

I offer these personal observations as sources for what good fiction needs, larger than life forces pushing and pulling against emerging heroes who are forged by their times and triumph in spite of adversity.

Stephanie Barr said...

I guess the question is, what book are you trying to write:

Loser virgin becomes a soldier and thence a man (which is a cliche, but has worked so many times, one can't preclude it working again - as long as it has something unique to say)? If so, some of the back story may be important, but we need to know what happens so we know which part and why. What makes this story special and effective? Why is it worth reading?

Being a soldier defending a nation that may not back their actions is challenging? (Which can be timely even now IF you have something unique to say, even though this, too, has been done to death)? In this case, the virginity and backstory is probably minimally important, particularly for the query. Instead, the conflicts he faces need to be clearly delineated instead of inferred as background noise. And we need to know why this story is one we must read.

You've set up both possibilities, but haven't told us which story you want to tell or why this rendition of an old concept is worth the effort. We need to know what's happening, who is it happening to, and why should we care.

Me said...

Over on this side of the pond Vietnam novels might be seen as passe - films like 'Platoon' or 'We were Soldiers' having more impact. Like almost everyone else has said is that there doesn't seem to be any 'story' here. It's set in Vietnam and there's no DRAMA?

Fanfreakingtastic Flower said...

Usually I am a really sympathetic query reader. It's no easy task to sell a book in 250 words. That said, it annoyed the bejeezus out of me when the writer used the word forged, and then explained what it meant.

I know what forged means, thanks. That little moment is an example of the overwriting found throughout this query. It needs to be pared down by half, and the writer would do well to keep in mind that his reader is well familiar with Vietnam, underdog virgins, and coming of age as a concept.

You can tell us all that in quick short hand - have your query tell us what we DON'T know.

Anonymous said...

I think this has some interesting material, and could be really fun to read. It seems to me that this novel is at the point where 10-15% of it's words need to be slashed. I think that might force some focus. It sounds like this novel is about a character who needs to feel like a man. I don't think that requires a decision between sex or war. I do think that, now that the novel is complete, the moment when the main character feels like a man needs to be identified. Slashing words could happen, so that remaining paragraphs bring the main character to that moment. Happy tightening down!

Vivian said...

Okay, so John Jack, who I think might be the query writer, just gave us a lengthy description of the sixties and Vietnam. I'm going to assume it's accurate since I wasn't born until the eighties. However, there still isn't any plot here, just a description of what life was like during that time period. If you want to write a book about general impressions on a time period, you might consider just writing a nonfiction book on this subject. There's probably an audience for it.

You also might consider using shorter sentences. For example:

The middle 20th century was a sweeping Postmodern social upheaval on a grand and hopeful runaway course questioning and challenging presupposed and imposed notions of good old boy bubba WASP proper citizen propriety and behavior, including the entrenched status quo, the establishment.

For me, this sentence was just way too long to follow.

Irene Troy said...

I can’t find a plot; however, I do find cliché – many clichés. Unwed, abusive mother; weakling boy/man trying to find himself in the Marines; forged like steel (old Marine Corp recruiting advertisement, anyone?); innocent in horrific Vietnam setting; war protests – all well worn clichés, nothing original, nothing enticing for the reader.

The trouble with attempting to write a novel on a topic already done many, many times, is that it is very difficult to come up with anything original, anything that will compel a reader to move past the first few pages. The purpose of a novel query is to show (SHOW – not tell) the agent how your novel will stand out above those with similar themes. At the moment, this query fails to achieve this goal.

Anonymous said...

Now, children, if you won't take it from those of us who were actually alive, take it from wikipedia:

"The Summer of Love was a social phenomenon that occurred during summer of 1967..."

The author's memory, and mine, appear to be correct. (Am thinking the idea of "love" and "69" became conflated in some people's noggins.)

John Jack said...

No, John Jack isn't the query writer. He is, though, a survivor of the middle 20th century, something many of his cohort cannot enjoy.

You want a story from that?

My story is surviving in spite of all the clashes of wills, ideals, attitudes, imperatives, and temptations to fit so many someone elses' ideas of what was right for me. It's not ready for submission.

John Jack said...

The Summer of Love was a formal event organized in Haight-Ashbury in the summer of 1967. The concept caught on in the media and the subculture and the summer extended into 1970--peaking at Woodstock in 1969--as authorities scaled up armed and lethal resistance to peaceful protests.

No conflation brought out solely in today's minds; the conflation--culmination--of the summer of love occurred in 1969.

Now, West Coast bias and East Coast bias are another matter.

SatyricalRaven said...

Not be keep flogging the same idea, but its clear to me that what you have here is somoene who 'wants to tell a story' (can anyone else see a fireplace scene and bored grand-children being forced to listen to war stories?).

Author, you need to remove yourself from the 'personal emaotion' and just tell the tale. And as pointed out, decide which tale you are telling.
(i) lonely teenager with abusive mother, runs away to sea.
(ii) boy becomes man during wartime
(iii) virgin mets/lands girl

You can't tell all three - at least not in the QL. Work out your point and get to it otherwise ppl will be bored and 'switch off' before you can say 'Summer of Love'

JS said...

Both 1967 and 1969 have been called "the Summer of Love," as Google suggests, a confusion that goes back as far as those years themselves.

Apparently, 1968 was the summer with no love. Perhaps it was the political conventions that sucked the love out of the summer?

Joseph said...

I actually think this is sort of interesting, but I see what the shark is saying about the lack of plot.

Still, you're kind of following a time honored tradition of boy becomes a man... I was interested in the query, although I see that it lacks conflict.

At brutal Parris Island, Nick is forged - like steel subjected to intense heat and pressure.

Generally when we use similes, we don't need to put the dash, right? Slows you down.

Patrice said...

Okay, brave query-writer, you've taken your licks. The hope is that all of this armchair critiquing won't discourage you, but will give you some points that you can use to rewrite.

If the query letter is a miniature of the book, you probably need to think about whether you are telling more than showing in the novel itself. And as numerous folks pointed out, it can be difficult for a memoir-as-novel not to fall prey to the urge to tell the (maybe dull) truth. There is a LOT that happens in real life that isn't interesting as a book.

Having said that, I hope you won't give up! If you have a story burning inside you, you should saddle up your laptop again and revise.

P.S. Do the Marines ever really "whisper" to recruits?

SemperFi said...

Hi everyone, this is Tim Weller,the author of this query. Thank you for your time and comments,they've been helpful and entertaining. Patrice, to answer your question, no, Marine D.I.'s do not EVER whisper to the recruits. In the novel,which is roughly 90% my experiences that are fictionalized to broaden the scope, Tim, oops, I mean Nick, reads a book about the Marine Corps when he is twelve and is seduced.

Joel said...


If you were in for four years, you had to re-up. If it was 1967, it would've taken you through the draw-down--not the iconic Air America Huey tapping the roof of a Saigon apartment--but the slow exodus before. That's a story.

And Ulysses coming come. The years after--not the months after. We've seen that, but the years after. What happens to Ulysses after?

And 1967 was 44 years ago--as far away from 1967 as 1923. And Khe Sanh? You were too late for that. What was that like? See Jarhead again. And remember that you'll have to explain, and explain lightly, the difference between Air Cav and Marines ... Don't forget race. (Matterhorn, above). What did you see in Parris Island, SC? How did that affect you? Read Tree of Smoke, too for a familial arc.

Why do I say this? The query is bland and clichéd, a rut so deep it’s a gouge. Because I'm throwing you a rope. Find a new way.

Gisele said...

Right now, this query is a jagged mess. Several threads are mentioned and none of them are powerful enough to carry the story throughout. Combat/electronics training; Johanna, the cherry picker; love-graced Rod, the best bud; are secondary threads that help tell the story. But, what is at the heart of it?

Talking about loose threads...

This is a coming of age story that takes place during the tumultuous 60's (OK...), it's about Vietnam (OK...I'm following), then... whoa, duck fast! Before the reference of Little Big Horn hits you upside of the head.

"...a plaque in Marine Corps headquarters mentioning [his virginity] would be treated as a disaster, like the sign at Little Big Horn."

The writer probably thinks himself to be clever, throwing in bits of historical references but, does it serve the query? The writing term "kill your darlings" came to mind when I read this (kindly look it up, if unfamiliar with it).

Is this odd anecdote worthy of being included in your allotment of 250 words?

In fact, that is my amateurish suggestion. Keep this question in mind for the next round of revisions:

"Is this word worthy of being one of my 250?"

This question will help zero in on the essence of the story.

Good luck,

Guinevere said...

I disagree with the remark that stories involving Viet Nam start on arrival in Viet Nam. Maybe the book really is just a coming-of-age story that involves the Marine Corps and Viet Nam, rather than yet another story about Viet Nam; nothing wrong with that (and there's nothing wrong with another story about Viet Nam, either, in my opinion).

But, this query definitely needs tightening up. The plot and stakes aren't clear. There ARE a lot of books about Viet Nam, and so I think the query really needs to show what's fresh and interesting about this.

jjdebenedictis said...

What does Nick want? What's keeping him from getting it?

The second version of the query is much better, but this is still what's missing.

A story is a journey for the protagonist. S/he goes from an initial state to a final state, and the two states must be different.

Although your novel involves a physical journey, might the real story be Nick's internal journey?

Maybe he starts out believing Parris Island will "make" him a man, only to find that no, he has to "make" himself--that the kind of person he's going to is determined by his internal grit, not by passing a test.

If the book is only about Nick getting through Parris Island, then it doesn't need to include anything about him going to Vietnam and coming home again.

However, if the book's really about something deeper--like Nick realizing what it really takes to become the man he's always dreamed of being--then Parris Island can be his first step, and one that leaves him disturbed to realize he has farther to go.

So, to rephrase the Shark's original question, what does Nick want from life? What--and this answer should be different from the previous one--does he need?

Does he get what he needs by the end of the book? What does he learn, and how does he grow?

With internal journeys, the obstacles are often in the protagonist's own head and heart. You've got a well-written query here, and I'm certain your personal expertise makes the story gripping in its realism, but you need to show us that Nick is on a journey from trying to get what he wants to actually getting what he needs.

Best of luck with this, and keep trying! (Heck, if you were a Marine, then I probably don't need to say that--you guys never give up. :) )

Stijn Hommes said...

Sorry writer, I agree with QS.

Your latest query tells me your MC enlists in the Marine Corps and that he has to survive in Nam, but those are both gross generalizations. You should focus more on the plot and tell us what happens during this time. Talk about events and choices and you'll hit QS's sweet spot.

Nick Lewandowski said...

I agree with Stijn.

Think about what actually happens in the Vietnam section of your novel, and organize the meaty part of your query around that. Thinking about how this has been done in movies may help you reason through this more clearly, as they tend to "meander" less than novels.

Much of Platoon, for instance, can be boiled down to the conflict between Elias and Barnes.

In Deer Hunter the second half of the film hinges what occurs during the infamous Russian roulette scene.

Take the key scene or scenes (no more than two) from the part of the novel set in Vietnam and use them to SHOW them to us in the query so we can get a sense of what Nick will be dealing with when he gets back to the US.

Again, good luck!

Fanfreakingtastic Flower said...

Big improvement! Good job! However, my comment remains the same - tell us what we DON'T know in the query. Your writing is much tighter in the revision, but it's still describing a landscape very familiar to us. What makes Nick's Vietnam experience unique?

Irene Troy said...

S-I-G-H I understand you are attempting to summarize the novel in fewer words and to present the core of the novel without all the trimmings. Unfortunately, the second attempt is, in some ways, worse than the first. I come away with a “so-what?” impression. Your begin with: The Vietnam War and the late sixties are twin fires raging across America, scorching some, changing all. Yes, so-what? This tells me absolutely nothing about the novel. I lived through that era, attended college in the sixties and retain vivid memories of protests, nightly war updates on the television news and stories from those who survived. This sentence tells me nothing and shows me less.

As painted, Nick is pure stereotype. A lonely kid searching for meaning and a sense of purpose in his life, joins the Marines, goes to war, returns home still seeking purpose and meaning, but now damaged by the war. YAWN. Its all been done again and again. You must come up with a new angle, something that will grab a reader and pull them deep into your book. As presented here, this novel has no angle, no hook, nothing to entice me. The novel may be fantastically original, full of engaging details that will entice me to read until the end; however, none of that is shown in this newest query.

Kate Halleron said...

You lost me at 'no second chances'. Life is full of second chances - people who can't deal with failure are boooorrrrring.

Show me someone who gets kicked in the balls and then gets up and starts all over.

That's my hero.

Your writing is tighter on the 2nd try, but it doesn't make me want to read the book. Your protaganist has no distinguishing marks.

John Jack said...

Isn't it a fatal flaw for queries like manuscripts to revise within a short time span without substantively rethinking, understanding, addressing, and rewriting what went awry?

Janet Reid said...

John Jack, yes.
There's a rule here at QS that revisions can come back no sooner than a week after the post goes up.


jesse said...

1st Revision

There are many, many books written about Vietnam. That is the problem here.
Your query, in its current state, makes your novel sound like everything else I've ever seen about the war.
Give some thought to what makes your novel new and different. Start your query there. When it is done, make it better, use the archives. Otherwise, you're DOA.
Good luck.

Vivian said...

The second query is definitely more succinct, and that's great. But I agree with the others, I'm still not seeing a plot. I would suggest focusing on what the main character wants (to become a man? a war hero? to lose his virginity?) and what's stopping him from getting it (that part is very unclear). Also, it would be helpful if at some point the MC was forced to make some sort of a choice. This could really focus the query a lot more.

Bill said...

The problem may be with the book itself. Perhaps the plot is simply that in a tumultuous time, the guy joins the marines and goes to Vietnam, but nothing unique really happens to him. One option is to make up something for the query and add it to the book.

Other than that, it's time to focus on the specifics of what happens and what he does. Each revision tightens the generalities a bit, but it's still full of sweeping stuff like Age of Aquarius, blah blah.

Try something more like:
In the late sixties, Nick Alexander is eighteen, lacking self-esteen, and still a virgin, even in the era of free love. His solution: join the Marines, which will either kill him or make him a man and either one will solve his problems.

In the jungles of Vietnam, Nick learns to keep his head down, his new best friends close, and the Vietcong in his gun-sights. But, his life will change forever when he comes across a village, sees the horrible thing that happened here, meets the girl of his dreams, and gets shot in the ass within 30 seconds. And that's when Nick has to make the ultimate choice on whether to expose the horror (which is so unique, that no one else ever wrote a book about THIS one), finally get laid, pull the bullet out with his teeth, or open the first Starbucks in Vietnam, forty years earlier than the U.S. And the choice that he makes will not only change Nick forever, but will shock you to the core and make you question every decision you've ever made.

I proudly served in the United States Marine Corps for four years, and feel that my Marine experiences provide authenticity and grit to this 80,000 word novel, FIND A NEW TITLE.

Yes, there's a bit of sarcasm, but I hope you get my point and Janet's. Tell us, in a nutshell, enough about what actually happens to make us want to read the book.
Best of luck,

Apple said...

100% agree with QS. If the book is about everything going on around Nick but has nothing about his inner life, it's a history essay. And since I presume the author's not a historian, and his experience with VietNam is strictly personal, not a particularly good one.

When people ask, "What happened on your holidays?" you don't answer, "Well, the town of XYZ is still recovering from social unrest," you say, "I went to a beautiful tomb and met this great girl," and if you're an author speaking as a character you add "and the town feels uneasy, like everybody's watching each other through mostly closed curtains," or something less cliched.

If a doctor asks you about your abusive childhood, you say, "she hit me four times a week, probably because my dad was a drunk and shell-shocked," not "the abuse was an example of a trend in the towns surrounding X factory because Y% of men were laid off so they went to war."

When QS is asking for a plot, she's asking for a reason to care about your character. If you do it right, we should pick up all the background stuff from, well, the background of the story.

You can do it! Go, Author! Rah rah!


Irene Troy said...

Author – with respect: I’m going to make a suggestion that might sound harsh, but is truly meant only to help. Take a break from writing this query and go back to reread your own novel. Better yet, if you have not already, find a writers group and join. Ask your fellow writers to read your work and offer their honest (sometimes harsh) opinion on what works and what doesn’t. Be ready for severe honesty and no-holds-barred insight. You don’t have to take everything everyone says as fact, but at least allow your mind to carefully consider the advice given.

Meanwhile, read. Read more. Go to the library and read every fictional account of Vietnam written, the good, bad and indifferent. Ask yourself what works, what doesn’t, what makes you want to read more and what pushes you away within the first few chapters. Most important: identify the commonalities of each work and ask yourself what has become so common it is now mere cliché. Example of this to my thinking: young man confused about life joins the military (most often the marine Corps), goes to war and either finds himself and returns home a hero, finds himself and then dies, or comes home more confused than before. These themes have been done to death and, in too many cases, done poorly. With this new knowledge, be honest about your own work. There is a saying I’ve heard many times in my on-again –off-again writing career: everything has been written of before; the trick is to write the same thing, but write it better. Your theme may mimic the theme of most Vietnam era novels, but it will still succeed if the writing is strong enough.

While it is clear you are struggling with the arduous process of writing an enticing and clear query, I suspect your real struggle may be in the writing of your novel. If your protagonist is as “common” and as lackluster as the query suggests, it will be very difficult to entice readers to complete your book.

One final thought: a few years ago I started trying to write a novel concerning rational suicide and voluntary euthanasia. For almost eighteen months I struggled with turning an intensely personal experience into fiction. The result was writing that lacked truth, sounded cliché and failed to show a believable story. In the end, I junked the novel and decided to write memoir, not fiction. This writing has been much easier and, at least in the eyes of my mentor and writers group, much more powerful. I wonder if, as you state, you are writing semi-biographical fiction, you would be better served at least considering a different form.

Joseph said...

I'm currently reading MATTERHORN and I have to agree with the Shark: it's a sock-knocker. I think one of the reasons is because it begins in medias res: our hero and company are already in Vietnam and thrust into the thick of it. The reader is instantly transported into a world foreign to most of us: the jungle, military politics, war. The characters (of course) have unresolved issues at home, but these are revealed as the story unfolds. Even if your novel begins before the protagonist arrives in Vietnam (and I'm not sure that's a great idea) I don't think that's something you should emphasize in the query. Just my humble opinion. Good luck.

Joel said...


Write your story using the following words.

Nick [Last Name, too]

Must be 100 words or less.

We're both doing Janet's contest, and there are some pretty awesome entries. Imagine that many query letters every day and trying to figure what's good. We have to stand out.

Jaimie said...

I'm beginning to think the book has no plot.

Stephanie Barr said...

Rev 2 - It seems like you're trying to tug on shared experiences to entice us to read this. I'm afraid it has the opposite effect, not because we don't like to read things that we identify with, but because it sounds like the sort of thing we've seen or read a million times.

It's a fertile field because people remember it and so much was going on. We need to know what makes this story stand out. We need to know the story.

Orlando said...

I'm sure that your writing is good and that your experience in the military adds to your writing.

However, there is no real plot other than regular military life. For a book you will need a plot, a hook to keep us wondering what will happen next.

Your query letter lacks that. My guess is so does your manuscript. Think of a plot, a twist that will make your story different and add it to your story. Losing your virginity and regular life issues just aren't enough. But don't give up, just improve. Good luck.

Theresa Milstein said...

This last query is much better. If we knew more about Nick and what made his story somewhat different than the other Vietnam books out there. Maybe if we knew more specifically what obstacle(s) (besides the obvious, war) he faces in Vietnam. Is there an antagonist-type he works with. What's he up against along with the war?

I agree with QS - take out the big picture US stuff. We need to know what's personal for Nick.

I can't tell if it's your query that just needs more specificity or your manuscript needs another layer/plot, which you can then add to your query.

I wish you luck with the next revision.

Vivian said...

You know, I like that the first paragraph of this latest rendition has some humor in it. Unfortunately, I'm still not seeing the plot either.

Here's a suggestion: Ask yourself, "What difficult decision does Nick struggle with at some point in this novel?" Then tell us about that. For example: In Vietnam, Nick falls in love with a beautiful nurse and plans to marry her. Unfortunately, when he returns him, he discovers the woman he lost his virginity to is pregnant and expects him to marry her. Will Nick cave to social norms or marry the woman he truly loves? (Of course those things probably don't happen in your novel, but you get the idea.)

If you think about it and realize that Nick doesn't struggle with any difficult decisions in the book, then you might want to rework the novel before worrying about the query letter.

I would also leave out the part about Bobby Kennedy and MLK unless they were close personal friends of his, or he has some other very personal connection.

Gisele said...

This query is getting better but it is still too much of a panoramic overview of the 60s.

Writer, put your binoculars on and zoom in on the story. Let's get up close and personal with Nick. Tell us the story from that focused perspective.

Resist the urge to give us historical background of what it was like growing up in the 60s. That is OK in the novel but unnecessary in the query. The 60s is a decade that requires no introduction.

There are some references to Nick and America in a way that I get the impression the writer is trying to allude to the fact that the story of Nick is the story of America. The ordeals that Nick go through are the same ordeals that America go through. It is a micro/macro story.

Assuming that to be the case, that the writer is trying to tell us the story of America by telling us about Nick, we still need to know what Nick story is. Zoom in on him.

Draconium said...

i agree, you'd do best to leave out all the noise about Kennedy and MLK Also i can't see where the free love fits in, because nick obviously wasn't involved with any of that. By writing a novel about the Vietnam War, we can infer that your book is a period piece set in the 1960s, early '70s. This is great, but we're not going to get any more excited about this, even if you remind us that the green bay packers won the Superbowl, and the weather underground released a declaration of war on the US government.

These things only matter here in so far as they immediately effect the life of the protagonist (this means you should save all Nicks thinking/worrying about the world-at-large for the novel itself).

Who is nick anyway? To me, right now he seems like just a jerky kid who thinks war is the "adventure of a life time" A gruesome sentiment, which translates uncomfortably close to: has little value for human life, his own included. To "become a man" is one thing i could almost understand, but "this should be fun" is something much different.

Why should we want to spend a book with this person?

And finally (most importantly) why do you tell us noting about what actually happens in Vietnam. People keep begging you for plot, conflict, a big decision.

And i don't get it, HE'S AT WAR! He should be facing impossible decisions and insurmountable odds everyday? Why isn't it here on the page?

The war must change him, one way or another. Who was he, and who will he become? Where is the point of no return, when the person he must definitively become the person he must become?

Jo-Ann said...

Hi author.
I’m guessing that a lot actually happens in the narrative, as marines don’t usually sit on their butts all day when in combat. But what you probably have is a series of anecdotes rather than a single plot. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but it means the query goes nowhere.

However, as you have included a section about the free-love, anti-war movement in all the versions of your query, this seems pertinent to you. You've not spelt out why.

I’m wondering if there’s something about his life as a vet that draws it all together. Perhaps he is challenged by civilian apathy/ hostility, and he must decide how he can remain true to himself when the sacrifices he made while serving his country are ignored or demonized.

Keep going!

SemperFi said...

Hi everyone, Tim again. Thank you to everyone for their very helpful comments.

I have one thought about writing a successful query: aargh!
This is almost as difficult as shooting Expert in the Marine Corps, maybe more difficult, I did that three times, I haven't done this even once yet.

Thanks again for your time and insights.

Fanfreakingtastic Flower said...

It's getting better, though. Keep truckin'!

Focus on what is at stake for Nick. Obviously, his life is on the line. Beyond that, though. Maybe bring the romance subplot back in?

And if you mention things like assasination, bring it back to what it means specifically Nick.

jesse said...

2nd Rev

It's getting there, but I have to agree with the shark. I'm still not really sure what the novel is about.

Simply put, as the blog mentions over and over, you need to tell us who the main character is, what he wants, and who's stopping him. Nothing else. Your query tells us who, tells us a little about him, but aside from joining the Corps I don't know what happens to him or why I should care.

In order to achieve this, you could try to boil your novel down to a 3 act structure: beginning, confrontation, and resolution. Not every story uses a this model, and after reading your queries I suspect yours does not. However, try to think about your story in this way, and you'll have a much easier time explaining the story and writing your query.

The key is usually finding where the conflict meets resolution. Get that right, and the rest is easy.

Continued good luck.

SemperFi said...

Hi, Tim again. I’ve decided not to revise my last entry. A brief bit of background will help explain why. My novel began when I finally gave in to years of a friend’s urging, “You should write down your Marine experiences, they’ll have an audience.”

I decided to fictionalize them to broaden the scope. After much sanding, polishing and buffing, a Pulitzer Prize nominated editor worked his magic on my manuscript.

However, I never intended this to be ‘fiction’ but what I like to call, fusion fiction. I didn’t want to produce a memoir, nor a conventional three act story, but rather, a fictional chronology, with highs and lows, combat, death, and love. I was after character arc, not story arc.

For me to revise my query to present this as otherwise, to gain a thumbs up, would be dishonest.

Am I doing the right thing? Time will tell; but I’m keeping my conscience clean and following my heart. That always seems like the best path to me.

Thanks again for your feedback, it’s been entertaining and helpful.

Please feel free to stay in touch. In life, just like in combat, you can never have too many good people on your side.

John Jack said...

SemperFi, but a character arc is a plot arc, at the very least in the sense of transformation, plot's fundamental essential. In general, there are two kinds of character transformations with two kinds of outcomes, so four general potentials.

Static, unchanged but striving to come to terms with all the world compelling change, with a successful resistance to change outcome. Static also, striving to change but a failure to change outcome.

And dynamic, striving to change and a successful outcome, or striving to resist change and a failed resistance outcome.

Which one, in general, is your novel about? It certainly was an era of sweeping, grand scale social changes and resitances to social changes. However, what Query Shark said in the third response, what's it about personally, the more personal the better, in my considered opinion.

Fanfreakingtastic Flower said...

SemperFi - I read your last comment. You're not understanding what this is about.

If your book is good, you do not have to turn it into something it is not to write a good query. If your book is good, what you need to do is distill what is good about it into 250 words or less. If you're a writer, you can do that.

Maybe your query should be one those that breaks rules.

Forget all the advice, and distill what is good about your book into 250 words or less. If this book is just for you, than whatever. If you want to do something with this manuscript going forward, being able to condense your writing is a skill you're going to need to have.

Here is a HORRIBLE version of what I'm suggesting.

The first time Nick Alexander watched one of his fellow Marines die, underneath the panic and the horror, a little part of him couldn't help but say, At least it isn't you. At least you're not the one dying in Vietnam, dying a virgin, dying before your life has even begun.


As a Marine, you're probably like, UGH, stop, girl, you know NOTHING about what it's like to watch a man die.

And you'd be right. I don't. But YOU DO. And so does Nick. If the whole point of this exercise is his character arc, put the query into his head and show me what kind of a man he is. Show me his humanity. And skip the boring parts.

Anonymous said...

I like the "voice" of this version and the rhythm of it. IMHO it's much improved. My two cents: ditch the third paragraph about Kennedy and MLKjr., and replace the second paragraph with the conflict/plot:

But when Nick [does A], [B happens], and Nick must [do C] to [Save the Day]. Not an easy task when you're a [D].

SemperFi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fanfreakingtastic Flower said...

Tim, glad to hear you're back on the horse! Go get 'em, cowboy.

Theresa Milstein said...

I feel like each query gives us a different part of the story. This is the best version of the quer so far.

Stephanie Barr said...

Rev 4 - I like the voice and tone better. I like the second paragraph. I'm not sure what the first paragraph adds, but, if you keep it, trim out what isn't necessary.

But I don't have a sense of the story. The third paragraph spits out events but not a cohesive chain. Pick out one plot line, where one event leads to another and follow it so we're aware of at least one of the stories you're writing.