Sunday, March 13, 2011


Dear QueryShark:

Preparing to tape the races on the river, 'Mac' McCaskill stumbled on a brutal execution style murder. Even more ominous, the shooter sped off in a police car.

I don't intuitively know what "tape the races on the river" means, so using that as an opening is confusing. It's also not important.  That Mac sees a murder is important. Open with the important event.  I also have a well-known loathing of starting sentences with clauses rather than the subject, particularly in a query.

Fleeing to another state, transplanted westerners Mac and his wife Sharon surrender the video to the authorities for an empty promise of safety.

Again, focus on what's important first.  Also, I'm confused about why they would first flee, then surrender the video.  Wouldn't they give it to the local law enforcement guys first? 

They are subjected to sleazy cops, bureaucratic control freaks, and professional hitters. As private agendas unfold with a vengeance, they are forced to escape and evade as he was taught in SERE school. Striking back with other violent skills learned in the military was entirely his idea.

I don't know what SERE school is. I can intuit that it's some sort of military tactics school from context but acronyms are a risk you can avoid simply by leaving it out. 

Using the momentum of the ongoing corruption investigations in Memphis, this novel exploits the lack of a state sponsored witness protection agency.

Aha! Now I see the source of the real problem in this query.  You're trying to make a point.  Don't.  The story has to come first.  I'm fundamentally uninterested in"sleazy cops, bureaucratic control freaks, and professional hitters" because they are one-dimensional characters you're using to make a point.

Your characters need to reveal the point you're trying to make. Consider this: Mac turns over video tape of a shooting that involves a police officer.  Expecting help from law enforcement, after all he's seen movies about Witness Protection, he's dumbfounded to learn there's no protection available for him.  He's on his own. With his wife.

You've made your point without sounding like this is an expose of something. You've got to tell a story well to make your readers care. Otherwise you're writing a treatise and I don't represent those if I can help it.

Currently a Systems Analyst, I planned my first book while a Staff Sergeant in the U. S. Air Force. Part of my training in 'Electronic Intelligence' took place at the SERE school mentioned in the story. After writing my first novel and several short stories, I discovered and joined the (redacted) Writer's Guild. Now on the Board of Directors, I have finished my second novel and am midway through my third. 

None of this is a writing credit.  You don't need to be in the military to write about it. 

Immediately available, "aka; The Dark Side of Wit-Sec" is a fast paced thriller of 50,000 words about the mysterious side of witness protection.

"Immediately available" is expected. You wouldn't query unless the novel was ready to go. You don't have to say this; we expect it.

And what you've described isn't really a thriller.  There's no ticking clock. There are no stakes larger than the personal (whether Mac and Mrs. Mac live or die isn't of national importance) and as far as I can tall, there's no antagonist.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is a form rejection even though the idea of no state sponsored witness protection is interesting.


Anonymous said...

Writer, please consider your protagonist's role in this paragraph:

They are subjected to sleazy cops, bureaucratic control freaks, and professional hitters. As private agendas unfold with a vengeance, they are forced to escape and evade as he was taught in SERE school. Striking back with other violent skills learned in the military was entirely his idea.

In the first sentence, the verb is "subjected"-- your protag and his wife aren't doing anything that couldn't also be done by an inanimate object. In the second sentence, the action in the clause is performed by someone other than the protag-- by "private agendas". Your protag and his wife, for their part, "are forced to" take their first action of the paragraph.

There's too much of your characters being the victims of circumstance and not enough of them taking action.

Also, the phrasing is kind of awkward. Try to make each sentence about one thing. Don't overstuff them.

(And... why wouldn't it be "entirely his idea"? Is this just intended to diss the wife, who claims it was her idea? Does it matter whose idea it is?)

Irene Troy said...

Although, I find the premise upon which I believe this novel to be based, interesting and potentially engaging, one short paragraph in the query stopped me cold.

Using the momentum of the ongoing corruption investigations in Memphis, this novel exploits the lack of a state sponsored witness protection agency.

Is this novel meant as a commentary on police/political corruption in general, specific to Memphis or what? As Janet points out, writing fiction to make a point is almost always a mistake. Certainly, there is plenty of great fiction containing important social/political lessons; however, the story always comes first. Think in terms of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. The novel makes an important social/political statement, but first and foremost, the story grabs the reader by the throat and carries him/her through until the end.

The other issue I noticed in the query is the use of jargon. Never assume your reader will know the meaning of words not in common use. The first time you use an acronym spell out its meaning so the reader doesn’t have to stop reading to go look up the word. Unless your writing is specifically slanted to just one segment of the population (that uses this jargon in everyday speech) I’d advice limiting the use of jargon that is not commonly understood.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Maybe it's because I'm in edit-mode myself, but something that leapt out at me is the query's paragraph structure.

With the exceptions of your closing, and the paragraph that starts "They are subjected...", every one of your paragraphs begins with a similar clause:

Preparing to tape...
Fleeing to another state...
Using the momentum of...

Then your personal info section paragraphs are also qualified with beginning clauses:

Currently a systems analyst...
Immediately available...

Were I reading this as an agent, I would have to assume the same writing quirk is present in your manuscript. It's the visual equivalent of listening to someone who speaks in monotone or has a distracting verbal tic. After a while the reader hears how you say something louder than what you're saying, and it beings to grate on the nerves.

Honestly, the subject matter here wouldn't matter to me at all because the rhythm is wonky. Speaking in cadence works for some things, but an entire conversation that way would make the person you're speaking to want to run screaming.

Buffra said...

I read the "entirely his idea" as the sort of active, he's taking control kind of thing. His choices would be to go along with what people are (or aren't) telling him, but he decides to be more active. Sort of a cure for the passivity of some of the other phrasing.

At least that's how I read it.

However, it's still a bit clunky and the same idea could be shown in other ways, instead of told. Show him being active and DOING things and give us more of an idea of the stakes (personal or more).

Theresa Milstein said...

I like Query Shark's suggested changes. And I see what she means about beginning with a clause. I recommend saying who is after Mac and his wife. We don't know who he's running away from, only the why. It must be someone big if witness protection would need to get involved. (There's a hint about the police car.) So a big chunk of the plot is missing.

Sounds like you might have something after cleaning this up a bit. Good luck!

I am surprised that people still query with unimportant credentials. It comes up so often, and always gets crossed out. I think that's only important for credibility in non-fiction.

Gisele said...

This author sure likes a clause! Five out of the six paragraphs on this query starts with a clause.

This is one muddled query. Only someone who is already familiar with the story would be able to understand it, the rest of us are left wondering what in the world is going on.

Take "Preparing to tape the races on the river" as an example of that. I'm sure this makes perfect sense to the author, who is on pretty familiar terms with his own MS. However, to the unaware reader, who has just stumbled upon this query, this makes as much sense as a Dada verse.

My suggestion is to rewrite the whole thing over. Then, let it marinate for a week or two before resubmitting it. The waiting period will give the author a better perspective on the query and it will allow him to see it objectively.

Also, did the author really mean to say: "this novel exploits the lack of a state sponsored witness protection..."? I think that "this novel explores..." would be more appropriate. Although, I wouldn't mention the exposé agenda behind the story.

A3Writer said...

I have to question including the wife, Sharon in the query at all. She just seems to be along for the ride. Does she actually have a significant role in the story? If so, tell what it is. If not, reduce her down to his wife instead of dropping her name.

There needs to be an antagonist in this. It sounds like you want to build suspense and not give it away, but this is a query and the agent has to know who is responsible. At the very least tell who it is that Mac is striking back against. He needs to have a target, right?

50k, while technically the length of a novel, is pretty short these days. Some agents don't take anything less than 70-80, so be aware that the length can also be a reason for rejection.

Anonymous said...

Josin, I call those National Geographic sentences.

Beginning each sentence with a dependent clause, the photo caption writers of that venerable magazine used to drive me nuts.

They don't do it as much anymore.

flibgibbet said...

Thank you QS for pointing out what's amiss with this opening clause. Without a context or a subject, it's confusing.

Moreover, this particular clause makes it sound as if Mac was interrupted BEFORE he made a video, but para 2 contradicts. Worse, as written, the MC flees before the danger has become apparent. (Hopefully this isn't the sequence in the novel).

Para 3 jumps from the MC being done to, to employing "other violent skills", when the only "other" skills noted are evasive.

Para 4 takes us completely out of story. This is where the writer intrudes to tell us his/her political views on the subject.

If nothing else, I hope the author gets why para 4 is a deal-breaker. Readers read fiction to live vicariously through the MC's eyes, which makes author intrusion unforgivable.

Puppet masters hide behind a curtain for a reason.

Polenth said...

Potentially, it could be an exciting story. The murderer goes after some unprotected witnesses, but they turn out to be ex-military and use their training to outwit him/her. For me, it would have more impact if there was some idea what they did with that training. They sound passive at the moment, rather than actively doing anything to stay safe (and presumably beat the antagonist?)

JS said...

The idea of witnesses having to survive using their years-old military skills because law enforcement can't protect them is always exciting! Focus on that, not the policy stuff.

(If the book is engaging and people read it, then you can leverage that to be part of the policy debate. But nobody is going to care unless it's a thrilling book, and to sell a thrilling book you'll need a thrilling query.)

Something really simple like "Mac McCaskill accidentally caught a murder on cam. Now he's a hunted man."

Anonymous said...

I zoned out when I hit "sleazy cops". I needed to re-read this section, which I am not sure an agent would have done. I would love to see intense verbs in this. Verbs as thrilling as you want your novel to sound. Keep at it. The time you have put into writing your novel is worth perfecting this query. Go over old entries in this blog. There's a ton of tips available.

Theresa Milstein said...

JS, I like that line!

Anonymous said...

Wandering between the past and present tenses doesn't help, either.

"McCaskill stumbled . . . Mac and his wife Sharon surrender the video . . . Striking back was entirely his idea." If you read the winning queries on this site, you'll probably see that 99% of them stick to the present tense.

Anonymous said...

Jumping off what arhooley said, I was bothered by the verb tense switches throughout, too. When it comes to picking one, I've also been taught that queries should be written in present tense. Correct?

Joseph said...

I like the title (if it were shorted to just AKA). That's a great title for a story about someone in the witness protection program.

Shauna Bickley said...

I've also been told (and read) that queries should always be in present tense.

JS that sentence of yours is great - that would make me want to read the book.

jesse said...

I also came to the conclusion that the novel is probably didactic. I don't hate didactic lit, but I think it's hard to pull off, which makes owning up to it a liability.
If your book is trying to make a point, that's fine, but let the story make the arguments.
The plot sounds like it might be interesting, but the query isn't selling it well.
Also, a sense of character is missing. A few details/responses could make a huge difference.

Unknown said...

I can make a lot of leaps from here and imagine a cool book, but based on the query I have no idea what's going on.

The query is jumpy. It sounds hurried, and I don't get a sense of the character. I don't get a sense of plot either.

I know they are running...but... they seem to be running from everyone. That's just too broad a scope of bad guys.

Anonymous said...

This doesn't smell like just another lackluster query. It smells like a great story --- well-researched, well-written and well-paced --- that happens to be greatly hindered by a lackluster query.

That's just my gut feeling. I try to not to post my "gut feelings" too often on Query Shark, but this one's particularly strong for some reason.

Unknown said...

Key Point - The story comes first. Always on my mind when I write queries.

Unknown said...

Josin really nailed this. Your writing is wonky. You start almost every sentence from the middle. It's like Yoda writing.

I know what SERE is and I still had to stop reading and try to remember what the acronym stood for. Survive, Evade, Resist...something...

I feel like there's a decent idea here, but this query is really convoluted. Keep it simple. Try reworking it with a cause & effect skeleton.

1) MC witnesses a murder.
2) MC turns to police for help.
3) Police can't help.
4) MC must protect himself and his family using his badass military training.

thebigguyinSF said...

I think the story has potential, but I think making a direct point of poor witness protection in states is better left for a persuasive essay rather than a novel.

thebigguyinSF said...

The story may have potential but a direct point being made should be made in a persuasive essay not a novel unless as stated it is done from a protagonist's point of view.

Beth said...

this novel exploits the lack of a state sponsored witness protection agency.

I think the author meant to say "explores" rather than "exploits."

And there were grammar issues in the query as well. This does not bode well for the quality of the manuscript.