Saturday, February 26, 2011


 Dear Query Shark,

Part warm body, part social chameleon, fourths have become an accepted part of the commuting landscape. Since Every highway in the newly-invigorated Detroit is restricted to four-passenger cars, Carpools who that come up short must either take surface streets through dangerous neighborhoods or hire extra riders to fill their cars.

This is instantly intriguing. It works  because I believe the premise. It works because it's not the endless stream of same-old set up. (Demons, vampires, girls who must come to terms with being outsiders cause they're were-cheerleaders)

I always like to edit out "Since" as the way to start a sentence. Use "since" sparingly since it requires a "must" clause, and you end up with long-ass sentences.

It's an easy way to earn some extra cash--or to end up dead. Someone is killing fourths and the only one who seems to care is burnt-out homicide cop Francis LaCroix, who moonlights as a fourth himself.

This neatly solves the problem of stakes (the cop might get killed) and why the protagonist needs to investigate (he's a cop, and he's a potential victim.)

Then LaCroix discovers that the dead fourths were are terrorists sabotaging the highways, causing horrific crashes. Worse, his own nephew may be involved in the plot. With both careers on the line, LaCroix needs a shot at redemption, but continuing the investigation paints a target on his family and leaves the terrorists free to strike again. Suddenly, he isn't so sure bringing the killer to justice is the right thing to do.

And there's the twist that gets me really interested.

Watch the tense of your verbs in a query. Pare out every extra then/that/has/was.

TAKING THE HIGHWAY, a science fiction novel, is complete at 93,000 words.

This isn't science fiction. And I'd STRONGLY urge you to not call it science fiction even if you think it is.  There's a lot of room for cross-over into crime fiction here, and by calling it science fiction you might miss an agent who doesn't handle SF but would read this.

Thank you for your consideration.


This is a neat tidy job with a good premise that's well presented.  There's no extra stuff mucking up the query. My guess is you'll get requests on this. I'd certainly read pages.


Robin Lemke said...

Wow, I'd like to read that book right now. I mean, if you need a beta... ;) I'd certainly line up to buy it.

(And seconding what The Shark says about Sci Fi - I don't love straight Sci Fi, but I'd love this)

Anonymous said...

Err, isn't the "were" for the dead fourths correct? They are no longer terrorists... you know, since dying.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Very cool premise. I'm not even that big on crime fiction, but I'd check this out.

(I want to know what a were-cheerleader involves. Is it someone who randomly morphs into a hurkey when the stadium's full?)


Janet Reid said...

Lebrary, interesting question. I'd use "are" because the terrorism and death is ongoing (thus the plot for the book). If it was "were" there would be no peril for Our Hero.

I think there's a case to be made for both.

Joel Brown said...

Very cool. Detroit's a nice choice, since there's eco-terrorism involved and the tension of a car-based economy. The best part? You didn't tell: you showed.

It echoes The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. The best dystopian novels put us on both sides, and it sounds like you've done that.

I'd buy it.

Meaningless Prose said...

Oh my, it sounds like a very interesting novel.
Though when I read LaCroix I think of Lucian LaCroix from the vampire TV show Forever Knight.

John K said...

A double feature Sharkie Saturday! Nice that you show one that works and one that does not.

Finolala said...

The motorway premise seems to me to be plagiarized from Doctor Who.

Karen said...

I admit my brain is a little limited, but I found the first sentence very confusing.

Casey said...

The only problem with taking out the "since" is that you end up with a comma splice, which is icky.

Janet Reid said...

Finolala, your comment tells me you don't understand what plagiarism means.

To plagiarize is to take someone's execution of an idea: their words,their images to use as one's own.

Ideas are not executions. Many writers can have the same idea and write very different stories. Many writers can get ideas from other places, and create their own work.

You cannot plagiarize the idea of QueryShark, you can only repost the actual content of the blog and claim you wrote it for it to be plagiarism.

Plagiarism is a very serious matter but unless this writer has lifted actual paragraphs from somewhere else, this isn't it.

I see a lot of writers who don't understand this but it's important to do so.

Janet Reid said...

Casey, when I took out "since" I meant for there to be two sentences. No comma, just a full stop. It's hard strike out those pesky commas cause they're invisible sort of.

Sherri Browning Erwin said...

This one just lost me right away, because it does take place in Detroit. Detroit is all about the auto industry and the auto industry is all about putting more cars on the road, not less. It would be the last place to conform to any regulations of riders per car. Anywhere else, I might buy it. You can get a driver's license in one day in Detroit. They don't even require a road test.

Unknown said...

Intriguing premise, but this sentence confused me: "LaCroix discovers the dead fourths are terrorists sabotaging the highways, causing horrific crashes."

Is someone murdering fourths who are terrorists? (In which case, it doesn't seem like mc is in any danger.) Or is someone murdering random fourths as an act of terrorism? (In which case, I wonder how murdering someone in the back seat of a car would cause horrific accidents.)

You had me right up until that sentence. But then I spent the rest of the query wondering if the nephew was himself a terrorist/fourth or a terrorist killing the fourths.

But maybe the very fact that this intrigued me enough to stop and ask questions is a sign that it would grab agents enough to request pages. :)

Amber J. Gardner said...

..I feel stupid. It wasn't until I read the comments and that link to Dr.Who Wiki that I finally figured out what "fourths" meant. When it said, "four-passenger car" I thought it meant like a car that seats four people and I'm like, aren't all cars like that? So I was very confused.

But now that I get it, it's interesting and I totally agree the Sci-Fi genre. I love Sci Fi, but I don't see or think Sci Fi when I read this. I think the elements of mystery and crime are stronger than the elements of science fiction.

Luanne G. Smith said...

I think this is a fantastic premise, but I have to admit I read the first paragraph about four times before I finally understood what "fourths" were. Maybe I'm just slow, but I think that could be made more clear.

Best of luck with this.

Finolala said...

I understand what you mean. The only writing experience I have is of an academic nature and in that field plagiarizing an idea in any form without referencing it is a serious offence.

Thanks for the explanation!

Janet Reid said...

Finolala, I think you mean referencing an idea without citing the source of the idea is a problem. It's the citation that's the essential ingredient to avoid a misstep, not mentioning the idea alone.

It's really important to express this clearly to avoid misunderstandings.

Jo-Ann said...

@Meaningless Prose.
My association for LaCroix is the fashion designer, Christian La Croix. I'm getting a 90's flashback... cult comedy "Absolutely Fabulous"... clueless fashion victim swooning "But it's LaCroix, dahling!" about any piece of crap bearing that label.

Simon Hay said...

I got 100% on the quiz. Do I get a cupcake?

I'd read the book. I'm searching my WIP for 'since'.

Cathi said...

I like this! Finally something that is not run-of-the-mill. Nice.

Buffra said...

Karen, I'm with you that the idea there is a bit confusing. BUT I thought the rest was so well done, that the whole terrorist/fourth thing would be explained in the manuscript. At least, I hope so.

Standback said...

Very nice. I love this kind of speculative detection story, and it sounds very unique and intriguing.

The first sentence struck me as very awkward and somewhat unintelligible - at the very least, shouldn't the initial descriptors be in the plural? The first time I read the line, I thought that "fourths" referred to 25% of things.

O Noble Shark, might I ask that you expand a bit on "this isn't science fiction"? It's clearly speculative and not-in-our-world, it just doesn't have space ships. It'd fit neatly into SF - but I agree it would fit other genres, and readers, as well. Is this a marketing-genre distinction? How do I differentiate speculative fiction from the SF marketing genre?

Anonymous said...

I found the first sentence confusing as well -- the only reasons I read on were the "FTW" in the entry title and, of course, the fact that the Query Shark chose it for review.

Would another agent read past that first line?

It seems to me that all it needs is a simple clarifier: "in the near future" or mention of the year, or something like that.

As it is, I found the opening a bit limp. Also, isn't this all backstory?

If this was on the cover of a book, I'd put it right down. No way I'm going to want to read a story about commuting. And having lived on the South Side of Chicago, I drove my '78 Chevy Impala through "dangerous" neighborhoods every day.

Anonymous said...

Also, I too have been wondering about the necessity of clarifying a novel's genre in the query.

Mostly because I write literary fiction, and I wonder if the word 'literary' isn't a kiss of death in this day and age.

FWIW, for me it's clearly "are" in that sentence. Unless there are and will be no more deaths among the fourths. In which case, there's also no more tension. And I can feel safe driving along again.

Sakura said...

Any science fiction that you like the sound of is not actually science fiction (despite being set in the future!) but "crime" (or, in the case of Hugo and Nebula award-winning "The Windup Girl," it's "dystopian"!)

Prejudice. It's pukelicious. The book sounds awesome and I hope it makes a whole lot of money for the author. Too bad that also means it will make money for the people who deface it in order to make it acceptable to idiots who say they don't like science fiction or fantasy even though their favourite "thriller" is Jurassic Park and their favourite "adventure" is Pirates of the Carribean.

jesse said...

This sounds sci-fi-ish, but def light sci fi, unless there's a lot of future tech. Even so, I'm guessing this would be easier to sell as crime or maybe high concept commercial. Damn market trends... ;)

As for the first sentence being confusing- it kept me reading.

John Jack said...

Speculative fiction in its narrowest definition is how I would categorize the genre. Unfortunately, fantastical genre has co-opted the term as a catch-all for science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Speculative fiction, where imaginative but credible premises drive the plot.

By that definition, dystopia can be categorized as speculative fiction, as long as there's no over the top fantastical premises.

Dystopia also falls in the soft science fiction subcategory, where imaginative social premises drive the plot.

High occupancy travel highway lanes are present-day realities. Four occupants to a vehicle are a certainty for the near future, and already in place in some locales. Great imaginative premises twist on present-day realities.

I'm most intrigued by what the outcome might be. Let the terrorists have their say, freedom of expression, as violent as it is, because it might wake people up to the social inequalities and environmental short-sightedness represented, or put a stop to it. Seems ripe of the kind of character change good fiction relies on.

tawdra said...

This didn't intrigue me even a little, which is probably more of a commentary on my reading taste than the plot line. However, I was lost in the first sentence. As someone else said--Amber, I think--I couldn't figure out who or what 'fourths' were.

JS said...

Yeah, I would pitch it to SF-representing agents as near-future SF, and to thriller/suspense-representing agents as thriller/suspense.

Near-future settings aren't actually a barrier to mainstream thriller/suspense publication; I just read Brad Meltzer's latest, for instance, which is set in 2015 or 2019, depending on how many terms Obama served in his imaginary universe.

JS said...

I would also capitalize or put quotation marks around "fourths" the first time, just to indicate that it was a special use of the word.

Unrepentant Escapist said...

I wonder if the first sentence could be made clearer by either scare-quoting 'fourths' or capitalizing the word. I got confused too because I think of fourths as musical chords.

I like the premise.

liquidmorpheme said...

Isn't science fiction? That's an absurd claim to make — of course it is, definitively so. You've ghettoized the genre in your head and are arbitrarily excluding the examples of it that interest you — i.e. it's too "good" to be science fiction.

bzyglowi said...

Definitely a relevant idea and an interesting premise. I was also reminded of the Doctor Who episode, but there's no fault in using similar ideas to make an important point.

I can see the point of the commenter who mentioned Detroit as a problematic setting, though. Maybe L.A.? I could see them implementing this kind of strategy to cut down on their legendary congestion/pollution.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the peanut gallery about this query. It's awesome-o 3000.

I had the same problem that Amber did with the word "fourths" --- it's not baffling, but it can cause a moment's confusion.

And while I agree with QS that it's best to avoid the "science fiction" label, I'd go further and say this doesn't seem like science fiction --- not all dystopias are, are they? Science fiction stories are about characters reacting and adapting to changes in technology (with fear, excitement, enthusiasm, violence, or whatever).

The "fourths" don't seem to be an adaptation of that kind. Detroit's traffic policy is an adaptation to the depletion of natural resources, not new tech.

wizardonskis22 said...

Hi! Fabulous query! I agree that the fourths could be clarified, and I like the idea of capitalizing. It makes them stand out and one can immediately tell they're important.

The premise is really great, and I would definitely read it. I'm not sure that it makes it Sci-Fi, though. Farenheit 451 is Sci-Fi because of all the technology, which is central to the plot, but this seems different, from the way you've described it. If you don't use too much tech stuff, then it could pass as crime or another better-selling genre. Of course, I love Sci-Fi and wouldn't mind seeing it in those shelves either :-D

The Wisper said...

Really love the premise of the book.

I am going to disagree with the people suggesting that the word fourths be capitalized. Used in this context, the word fourth is being used as an occupation, not a proper noun. Just as you would not capitalize police officer or baker or plumber, fourth should not be capitalized.

Theresa Milstein said...

This does feel like a fresh story.

I'm always pulling out filler words.

This actually sounds more dystopian than sci fi. As QS says, you don't want to shrink your agent pool.

Good luck!

Vacuum Queen said...

I really get excited to read about a new concept or idea. This seems interesting and unique. Kudos to the writer.

Rowenna said...

Really interesting idea--I can totally see shades of seedy Victorian underworld murders of marginalized individuals reimagined in a futuristic setting. By the way, I remember hearing an NPR story about, basically, this concept actually happening (minus murders) in areas where carpool lanes/parking spaces are covetted. The practice was called slugging--people hang out at designated locations and "slug" in carpool cars to, roughly, their destination. :

Unknown said...

I wouldn't pitch it as SF, but I would pitch it as taking place IN SF -- San Francisco, that is. San Francisco already has the casual commute, where people who want to take the carpool lane across the Bay Bridge pick up "thirds" to complete the trip. My father used to tell me I was going to end up dead one day as a "third" casual commuter. Great premise!

Robbin said...

Is LaGroix's redemption related to his moonlighting? Hmmm?

The term fourths is confusing. I visualized an amusement park ride - the attendant yelling for an extra rider before the roller coaster starts climbing the hill! Hang on for your life :)

I'd read your book.

Leona said...

I like this premise.

That being said, it is NOTHING like the DOCTOR WHO "GRIDLOCK" episode that refers to the motorway. In that show, the people who have 3 or more people in their flying cars in an enclosed motorway, can go below the rest of the traffic, to the carpool lane, where they are generally eaten be devolved aliens who feed on gas.

Unless I seriously misread the premise here, it's not the same. The only similarity I really see is the danger in the lower levels, which has been used since the time of moses--including movies like the fifth element--where pollution has made the lower levels nearly inhabitable, yada yada.

I know, I'm ranting a little here (you think) but it's very frustrating to me to see writers accused of stealing someone elses material, even if only the idea, when they obviously have put their own twist on things.

Libby said...

I have to say, this is my first time dropping by and this post was extremely helpful. I see many mistakes I make. Writing a query letter, I often begin this way...