Saturday, February 26, 2011

#197-Revised once

Dear Query Shark,

Neither of Susan’s parents were dentists, yet they molded their Southern belle to make a perfect impression. Translation……  (use a colon, not an ellipses here) she stifles raging hormones, marries within her class, pacifies her controlling manipulative hubby with Cordon Bleu dinners, and only needs the occasional dusting off as she emulates Jackie Kennedy.

Susan’s Stepford wife marriage goes to hell in a hand basket when she discovers her Rhett Butler spouse prefers Ashley Wilkes clad in leather Harley gear. She can’t run to Daddy; he’s bankrupted the family fortune and one phone call to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation from her vindictive husband will have Daddy wearing stripes.

Betrayal spreads Susan’s legs wide open as she steps down from her virtuous soapbox determined to put the ‘hell’ back in the ‘hath no fury.’ The former belle of the ball reinvents herself as the sultry redheaded Candice Collins, the in-house call girl occupying the penthouse suite at The Regal, a five star Manhattan landmark. Her alter-ego swells as her mattress grows lumpy with lavish tips for her Academy Award performances.

Candice opens her door to rock stars, politicians, CEO’s, athletes, leading men, and oh my God, a business associate of her conniving closet husband. Susan would have panicked and slammed the door, but Candice keeps her wits and turns discovery to her advantage. She’s tired of looking in the rear view mirror. Like any savvy woman, Candice has a few tricks up her sleeve. Only this time, she won’t be the one dropping to her knees.

VIRTUE is commercial fiction completed at 130,000 words.

There's no plot here.
I know you think there is, but what you're missing is what's at stake for Candice.

I know there's been a lot of talk lately about "likeable characters" and I come down solidly in the camp that chararactrs don't have to be likeable. They have to be interesting. 

What trips me up here is the assumption that Susan thinks the best option for revenge is becoming a call girl. 

This is the stuff of 70s Lifetime movies. It requires a suspension of disbelief that I just don't have. 


Dear Query Shark,

Sometimes between clients, Susan looks back on her life with a dazed bewilderment wondering what she could have done differently. How do you start out as a Georgia pedigreed peach and end up as one of Manhattan’s highest paid call girls?

Just lucky I guess.

Ok, no jokes (and that's an old one) but honestly this is so 70's Movie of the Week  I can't take it seriously.

She laughs at the irony of it all. All those years of charm school are finally paying off, she thinks. It really didn’t matter that Susan kept her reputation and knees unscathed, or that she married within her class. That WASPY white bread silver spooned world all goes to hell in a hand basket when the private investigator discovers that Susan’s southern gentleman of a husband is a controlling, powerful, and dangerous fraud.

We already know she's a call girl. This becomes backstory, not the start of the story. 

And you're using present tense even though you're talking about events that happen at two separate times: that's textbook confusing.

Susan tries to end the marriage with Jeff and he counters with a Sophie’s Choice ultimatum and swears to make her life a nightmarish hell if she were ever to leave him. In sheer panic, she changes her Grace Kelly spitting image identity and flees to Manhattan as the red headed Candice Collins with two thousand dollars and her wedding ring. (Surprise, surprise, even the diamond is filled with flaws.)

Sophie's Choice is about which of her children a desperate mother will save. Does Susan/Candace have children she's leaving behind? If so, do you expect us to sympathize with her? Very tricky to pull that off.

Freelance journalism just isn’t paying the rent and that is when Candice meets Mandy, the in-house call girl at one of Manhattan’s swanky five star hotels. Susan would never have given Mandy the time of day, but Candice accepts Mandy for who she is and they become friends. Mandy wants to retire after ten years in the oldest profession, and Candice reluctantly accepts and soon masters both the physical and psychological demands of prostitution with a colorful cast of clients.

And here's where you lose me. This is such a cliche I don't know where to start. I don't believe the premise. The characters are straight out of a B-movie.  I don't care about any of them. And just to make it a real non-starter, there's no plot.  You have description, you have set up, but you don't have choices or stakes.  (Choosing to become a whore isn't the plot as you describe it here-it's the start of the story)

Although Candice finds her new profession surprisingly satisfying and lucrative, she will never enjoy tranquility; she knows all too well Jeff’s insatiable thirst for revenge. It’s not a question of will he find Susan, but rather when. Readers will be licking their fingers turning the pages cheering her on as she outsmarts her conniving husband and transforms from Susan, a soft crumbly biscuit, to Candice, a toasted everything bagel.

Yea, being a whore is satisfying and lucrative. I simply don't believe that, and there's nothing here that gets me to suspend my disbelief. 

Never EVER use the phrase "readers will" and tell me how readers will respond. It's telling not showing. I don't believe you of course, and when you write that in a query letter it's as if you're standing in front of the mirror in the ladies room and when I come in you tell me how beautiful you are.  I'm pretty sure you'd never do that. Don't do it here either.

VIRTUE is commercial fiction completed with 150,000 delicious words.

Words aren't delicious. Stories are.

Thank you for your time,

No plot. Cliche set up.
Form rejection.


 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.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

#195-Revised 3x

Seventeen-year-old hard rock drummer and cupcake addict Zach Pembrook writes a song that inadvertently draws the attention of the world and it brings him unforeseen troubles.

He gets tangled up in a media circus after a world-renowned physicist publicly states that Zach’s song completes the Theory of Everything. Then he almost gets shot by a stranger outraged by fan claims that Zach is the greatest hacker of all time for figuring out the original algorithm to human emotions and spirituality.

But having both the scientist and philosopher camps out to get him is just the start of Zach’s misadventures. 

If you leave out all this stuff, you solve almost all the problems of the first two versions.

When the recording contract he so wanted turns out be a dud, Zach makes the mistake of getting into business with his ex-nemesis Thomas to take advantage of his newfound celebrity status. Soon, Zach’s reputation is virtually annihilated. Without much else to hold on to he insists on merchandising his song’s infamous happiness formula even after receiving anonymous threats against his doing so. He never imagined his sister would get kidnapped as a result.  

But here again, we've got clunky language with long sentences that have no rhythm at all. There's no flow here and this is something that I can't fix because it's the writing, not the structure.

Now desperate, he can’t just sit around and wait for others to get his sister back. With the help of his trusty sidekick Cuproo – a Roomba vacuum in an oversized cupcake costume that he takes everywhere on account of his allergies – he devises an infallible plan that draws on all his expertise as Rolling Stone Magazine guru to repair his fractured family.
Ok, this just moves this off the ledge and right into freefall: a roomba vacuum in a cupcake costume? I don't even know what to say to that.

THE CUPCAKE PLAN, a 60,000-word contemporary YA novel is available upon request.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration, 

You've really improved things by ditching that dreadful E = mc² thing, but what this revision does is put the clunky writing into bold relief.  That's both a good and a bad thing: it shows me that even if we get the query into structurally sound shape, you're not ready to send it out because the writing doesn't hold up.

This is a critical juncture for you as a writer.  You're not ready.  You need to spend some time, and by time I don't mean days, I mean months, if not years, honing your craft. You need to get rid of the clunk and the ONLY way to do that is to develop your ear.  It's clear in three revisions now that you have NOT done that.  You shouldn't feel like that's a failure; it's HARD to do that, and it takes time.

I suggest a long term plan of action: write every single day. Whether it's 100 words or 1000 words, write something new every single day. And read. READ. Read as a writer. Look for sentences that are beautifully constructed. Look for sentences that make you think "wow"  And if you don't see those sentences know one of two things: you're reading the wrong books or you haven't yet developed your eye.

A writing group can often be of help at this stage of your career because looking at OTHER writers' efforts and helping them see flaws will also improve your eye.

Keep a writing journal and look at sentences and analyze why something works and why it doesn't.  One of the things that helped me immensely is keeping this blog.  If you have to say why something doesn't work, and say it succinctly you learn a lot about writing. 

I know for an iron clad fact this isn't what you wanted to hear today.  I do hope however that you'll wait before 1. burning me in effigy 2. dismissing this as twaddle 3. leaping out the window.

this is the stage where a lot of people give up and do something like self-publish.  This is NOT the time to do that. You haven't gotten to the major leagues yet. Work on your writing. Get better. THEN query.


Zach Pembrook, a Malibu High hard rock drummer with an addiction to cupcakes is hailed as the greatest hacker of all time after writing a song that gives an unexpected use to E=MC² by linking it to happiness. There is just one catch: Zach never meant it as anything more than an acronym. But at a time when every invention that could ever possibly be invented is already old news the pull of the media and the public thirst for a new mystery are too massive to resist.

I'd stop reading right here because you still haven't overcome the problem of E=MC².  What you say here just doesn't make sense.

What did Zach hack?  Hack means something pretty specific: breaking in to a computer system, or specific computer by nefarious codebreaking.

And by pairing it with "every invention that could ever possibly be invented"--a statement attributed to the head of the patent office, and used to illustrate that we don't know what we don't know doesn't illuminate the metaphor---it befuddles me. As does your last sentence.

It's like saying "Zach is a lion, a witch and a wardrobe and Narnia is calling." Whaaa?

Normally I'd jump up and down about being specific in a query.  I even have a screen saver that says "precision is beauty" but in your case, you might want to just ease back from the specifics.

Zach writes a song that inadvertently draws the attention of the world and it brings him unforeseen troubles.

Happiness has been hacked.  I actually like this sentence but it doesn't make any sense either.

Zach’s adventures in hacker stardom begin on a high note and it seems rockers can indeed have more fun, even in the boring worlds of business and science. But then Zach’s ex-nemesis turned newfound best bud Thomas frames him with fraud at an organic t-shirt company they start together and his sister gets kidnapped.

ex-nemesis turned best bud? what??

who's sister? and what??

With a black hole of deceit and loss staring straight at him, Zach decides to take matters into his own hands. With the help of Aetos, a Greek child gangster that shares his love of cupcakes he recovers his sister. Then he gets another shot at the t-shirt gig. Seizing the chance to rescue his reputation, he vindicates all rockers at heart with a recipe for greatness any Rolling Stone magazine fan should know.  

At this point I'm so befuddled I don't know whether to scratch my watch or wind my ass.

THE CUPCAKE PLAN, a contemporary YA novel complete at 60,000 words, is a new, masculine take on Legally Blonde. While this novel stands alone, I have ideas for turning it into a trilogy entitled BE A CUPCAKE, SAVE THE WORLD.

This doesn't sound anything like Legally Blonde.  Not even close.

A query has to make sense. This doesn't.  Last go-round I advised reading the archives again. This time I think you might look for queries that get plot on the page and follow what they did.


Seventeen-year-old Zach is being hailed as the greatest code cracker and pattern recognizer of all time. But Zach is no scientist or computer guru. He’s a lyricist-slash-drummer that who happened to use E=MC² as an acronym to happiness in a hip hop song that went viral on YouTube. Now, the media have over-hyped his acronym as the ultimate answer to the ultimate question, the missing link to the theory of everything, and he can’t get a break.

Well, ok, I guess. This sounds like a comic book but I'll keep going. (The writing is pretty clunky though. Long ass sentences will do that to a paragraph)

As Zach deals with the frenzy of scientific attention, all he really wants is to rock on and get a recording contract. But he’s having a hard time convincing anyone to stop analyzing that one song and concentrate on buying his band’s eco-conscious hard rock tunes.

Media over-hype and scientific attention are two VERY different things. As are hard rock and hip-hop. At this point, you've lost control of your query. I'm losing confidence.

With no recording contract in sight and set on making his sweet, musical dream a reality Zach embarks on a high voltage adventure that includes lightning bolts, scandal, a Roomba vacuum in an oversized cupcake costume, a Greek child gangster, and a kickass redemption plan.

That list reminds me of questions on those tests: what doesn't belong in this group.
It's also a list without context.

THE CUPCAKE PLAN, a YA contemporary novel complete at 60,000 words is “Legally Blonde” meets “The Da Vinci Code”.

Honest to chum I don't know what to say to this.  Comp titles shouldn't make me spew coffee. These do. Why? Cause they're NOTHING alike. One is a light frothy rom-com. The other is ...well...something else. 

Comp titles are supposed to illuminate what the book is about. I can't imagine this pairing.

Thank you in advance for your time and consideration.

Power to the sweet,

This is a LOT better than the mess we started with but you've got some serious problems here. Fiction has to feel real.  You've got a huge hurdle with the E = mc² thing but you can get over it if all the other details are right.  But they're not. 

And you've lost one of the main characters, and any kind of reason this book would be called THE CUPCAKE PLAN.

Somewhere in the archives is a template for getting plot into a query letter. Find it. Use it. Revise. Resend.

Dear Query Shark:

E = MC², E = mc², the formula of light, is also the formula to happiness. This is what Sarah accidentally discovers under the pressure of heading a growing organic cupcake business.

well, no, it's not the formula of light.  C in the equation is the speed of light. E = MC², E = mc², demonstrates that energy always exhibits mass in whatever form the energy takes. A simple Google search turns that up.

The problem here is that if you want to use this as a metaphor, you have to start with something that isn't just plain wrong.  Metaphors are "wrong" but illuminating.  Calling an agent a shark for example, does not mean you'd wax enthusiastic about swimming as a necessary skill for reading queries.

You'd do better to leave out "the formula of light" and just say E = MC², E = mc², is also the formula of happiness.  The reason you'd do that instead is that this kind of basic fact error (like getting dates wrong in history) makes me crazy, and worse makes me stop reading.

But holding an answer in your hands is nothing if you don't take action.

So she decides to try out the formula by applying it to organize her life and the business. As she starts to see this in action, she wonders what other things around her had she not noticed before that might also be trying to say something to humankind?

Now you've lost me. These is a generalization. It's also going in the wrong direction.  The line above says "is nothing if you don't take action."  The logical sequence then is to tell us what action she takes, not veer off into what she sees in action, or wondering about other things.

Sentences in queries should flow in a logical order.

Light is everywhere, all around us day and night. How could we have missed this one humongous clue? This is the manual to life, the simple answer to happiness that we have been wanting forever. And it has been with us all along. All we have to do is apply its formula:

E = MC², E = mc²

Who the hell is "we"  There is no "we" in querying, much like there is no crying in baseball.  By this I mean, you're slipping disastrously out of third person and into first person here.  This kind of slip is a huge red flag in a query.

Remember, while a query has to tell me about the book, it also shows me how well you write.

And worse, you're now out of the realm of specific action entirely, and into some absurd conclusion that sounds like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.  If I hadn't stopped reading before, here is where I really click my ruby slippers and head home.

Her sci-fi daydreams take on a whole, new meaning like this, leading her to find her own dream, that cause for living that she has been longing for. Meanwhile, her best friend and business partner, Tessa, lays comatose in a hospital bed. If only she too could begin to see, really see things under this light.

"like this" requires an example to be logical. No one "lays" in a hospital bed unless they are a poem. It's "lies."

In its current form, Be a Cupcake. Save the World. is a 35,000-word, easy-to-follow guide to happiness that will electrify and empower young adults.

what? WHAT?  In its current form? Does it shapeshift?  No NO NO!  You query only for FINISHED novels. Never ever use that phrase in a query letter.  

And this is a novel right?  Cause "35,000 word easy-to-follow guide to happiness" and "electrify and empower" are NOT the description of a novel. You'd find that in the self-help section.  Making your novel sound like a self-help book is a very very bad thing.

Thank you for your time and consideration of Be a Cupcake. Save the World. for your list!

The only thing I like about this query is the title, and I like that a lot. However, you're punctuating it incorrectly. It's BE A CUPCAKE, SAVE THE WORLD and when you use it in a sentence as I did here, you'll notice there's no period.

This has failed to rise in the convection oven of the slush pile.  In fact, you need a new recipe.  

The only thing I know about Sarah after reading this query is that she runs a cupcake business.  And I don't know anything about what happens in the book.  That's absolutely fatal in a query.

Start over.  Use the recipe you'll find listed in the QueryShark archives more than once. That's the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Make it your own by adding lemon, cinnamon, nutmeg and raisins to taste.