Sunday, April 24, 2011


Dear Query Shark,

Pygmalionism gone awry, RUTHLESS AMBITION explores the life of Cassie Kincaid, an unattractive schizophrenic whose self-serving goals morph from innocent to insidious as she terrorizes her way to the top.

For starters, Pygmalion is the story of a man who coaches a woman to the top. For this to be Pygmalion gone awry you need two main characters.

And honestly, I'd probably stop reading here anyway because you've just described a main character I'm not sure I want to spend one paragraph with, let alone 60K words.

I'm not saying your main character has to be sweetness and light, evil and dasterdly can be very enticing qualities to explore. The trick here is to make her sound enticing. This doesn't do that. Instead of what you have here, think about how Cassie would describe herself and what she does.

You've got a story about the disconnection between what someone says and what she does, and how others see her. You have to convey that right here, first paragraph.

Cassie is fat, ugly and bullied her entire young life until she decides to take her fate into her own hands, never knowing that the voices inside are misleading her down a path that can have no success.

Are the voices the ones telling her to take her fate into her own hands? I have a hard time seeing why taking your fate into your own hands will lead you down a path that can have no success.

Also, the syntax (word choice) in that sentence is awkward: a path that can have no success doesn't really make much sense. You mean a path that doesn't lead to success.

Her motivations are entirely from the opinion of others; her college, radical plastic surgery and consequent rise up the ladder never satisfies her and Cassie becomes as inwardly ugly and ruthless as the very people she hated the most. Cassie doesn't understand why she is never fulfilled as she becomes everything she perceived would bring her the acceptance she's always craved.

RUTHLESS AMBITION is a tour de force of manipulative denial and misinterpretation of human contentment, a mainstream fiction novel of two hundred thousand words.

Please do not ever describe your novel as a tour de force. That's for critics and readers to decide. A query letter shouldn't have any of those phrases: amazing, wonderful, blockbuster, bestseller, etc.

I am a member of the Society of Southwestern Authors, teacher, a freelance writer and entrepreneur in (redacted.)  My articles have been published in the August, September and October issue of (redacted)

Thank you for your time.

The problem hers is you've got a book about character I don't want to spend time with. You've not done the one basic thing a query letter needs to do: entice a reader to want to read more. 

I don't think the problem is the query letter. I think it's the novel. Some novels you need to write to get them out of your system, but not all novels should be shopped.  I have a feeling this might be one of those.  

Dear Query Shark:

In a world where beauty trumps brains, unattractive, obese Cassie Kincaid is bullied her entire life. After each confrontation, she hears voices and fears she will develop schizophrenia-the family curse.

"In a world" is cliche movie trailer narration. It's always a bad way to start a query. There are a lot of better ways to choose from. I always suggest you start with the name of the protagonist. Consider: Cassie Kincaid is has been bullied her entire life. After each confrontation, she hears voices and fears she will develop schizophrenia-the family curse.

Attending Harvard Medical School should have boosted her self-esteem, but when she is an extern at Dr. Hans Zimmermann's medical institute in Germany, her idol abuses and ridicules Cassie, too. Tormented and humiliated, she has an emotional breakdown while Ingrid von Horne, Zimmermann's assistant and lover, witnesses her psychotic behavior. The two become close friends when she nurses Cassie back to health.

I think it defies credulity that anyone without a healthy dose of self-esteem could survive Harvard Medical School. You're overly dramatic here. Does it matter which medical school she attends? No it doesn't. It's in fact, all back story at this point.

Desperately needing her professor's approval, she has radical plastic surgery, vowing to get even with everyone who made her suffer. Cassie's physical transformation is obvious. She's gorgeous. What isn't so obvious is the metamorphosis that takes place within. Her goals change from innocent to insidious. Originally, she wanted to be respected as a world-renowned neurosurgeon. Being a good girl got her nowhere. Now, she wants fame and fortune and will not stop until she has it all.

And here's where you lose me completely. I don't believe the premise of the novel now. And further, Cassie loses any sympathy I had for her (which wasn't much--you paint her as a passive dishrag here.)

Although I might have wanted her to get revenge on the (nameless, faceless) people who bullied her (great revenge novels like Sidney Sheldon's OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT and Judith Krantz' SCRUPLES should be on your shelf) it's much less likely I'll sympathize with her now wanting "fame and fortune."  Protagonists don't have to be nice or sweet or even good people.  But they must get and keep our sympathy.  Lose that, and you lose your reader.

Drunk with power, she destroys Zimmermann's marriage, betrays Ingrid, and in a coup becomes president of the Zimmermann Institute. Everyone is vindictive. Everyone wants revenge, but Cassie is the mastermind, pulling the strings of all the marionettes she manipulated to rise to the top. A power struggle ensues as schizophrenia lurks behind.

Lurks behind what? The drapes? Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness and other than the one line in the first paragraph, you've given us no hint that this is part of the novel. 

Also, who's the villain in the novel? Cassie? If she's the villain, who's the hero?

RUTHLESS AMBITION is commercial fiction with two hundred thousand words.

oh, well, no. 200K is about twice as long as you want on something like this. The Other Side of Midnight mentioned above clocks in at 131K.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely yours,

This feels like a fantasy cooked up to *really show those bastids* kind of thing. It feels very good to write, but doesn't actually work well on the page. It doesn't work well for the same reason most of the Lifetime movies don't work very well: they don't bear much resemblence to reality and and require so much suspension of disbelief you need to strap on bungee cords to read the damn thing.

Before you start redrafting your query or revising your novel, I STRONGLY suggest you read at least 50 novels (preferably debut) in the romance and women's fiction category.  Really study them to see what agents  are looking for and editors are buying.  (This novel feels very very 1970s to me: passive woman transformed into angry avenger.)  You don't have to like all of them (in fact, you won't) but you have to move away from "I like this" kind of reading to "what works here and what doesn't" analysis if you're going to be a writer.  You have to know your category, and that means READ READ READ.  Not just for entertainment. For your professional development.

If you don't know where to start, look at the books being reviewed at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.  .
They'll get you started in the right direction.
Back to the drawing board.

Form rejection.


Unknown said...

Another reading suggestion would be "The life and loves of a she-devil" by Fay Weldon, which tells the story of a woman who makes herself beautiful through plastic surgery to get revenge.

Josin L. McQuein said...

I'm going to guess the writer has never actually been around someone with a mental health issue, otherwise, paragraph 2 wouldn't exist.

The idea that someone "afraid" of schizophrenia has a "breakdown" which leaves her "psychotic" but then she's "nursed back to health" while bonding with a new BFF is so far off the insulting (not to mention implausible) chart it requires a new adjective.

The rest of the story (the surgery and revenge - AKA, a Stockard Channing movie from the 70's) might work better if you use it as a massive delusion brought on by her having a psychotic break.

Plotting revenge and delusions of grandeur go along with being schizophrenic.

Janet Reid said...

Pub date on that is 1985. Very much part of the "angry woman/revenge" motif.

Lanette said...

I cannot rally behind a protagonist who turns on a benefactor for no reason. All that will do is make me angry, and you don't want the only feelings your readers have for the MC to be anger.

Irene Troy said...

Janet’s suggestion to read at least 50 well written novels is your first step and a very important one. In addition, I suggest if you plan for your protagonist to suffer from even mild schizophrenia you do much more research into this serious mental health issue. As presented here I would not, for one moment, suspect your Cassie as being schizophrenic or even coming close to suffering from a serious mental disorder. Instead, she comes across as a weak, unsympathetic character that, in the course of the story, becomes even less likeable as a vindictive, scheming witch bent of meaningless revenge. Readers don’t have to like every character in your novel, but they have to at least find them believable and at the moment, your protagonist is not only unlikeable, she’s unbelievable.

In addition to the suggestion of reading at least 50 novels in your chosen genre and to learn more about mental illness, I’ll pitch out another suggestion, one I hope doesn’t violate the terms of the blog. Consider enrolling in either an online or an in-person writing class. I can recommend Gotham Writers Workshop for terrific online classes in almost every genre. I’ve taken several classes there and each has helped toward improving my writing and learning the ins and outs of this business. Sometimes we need to start over from square one in order to create the best story possible. Don’t view this as a set-back; view it as a step forward in your evolution toward being a published writer.

Anonymous said...

In a world where intelligence is a prized commodity and those with slower minds must settle for second-best in the ruthless climb to the top, genius Cassie Kincaid manages to find misery and failure even as she progresses through pre-med, Harvard Med, and a prestigious institute.

No doubt you've placed Cassie in the way of snickering girls and insensitive guys, but that's not an accurate portrayal of life or the world. I recently spent months with a sick relative and met quite a few ugly-ish woman doctors and nurses and admins. Brains and skill trumped looks every time. How does Zimmermann's institute maintain any quality if it sidelines top practitioners just because they're less than gorgeous?

People like an Ugly Duckling revenge story, but they work only in small societies, like Charlotte
Vale's (Bette Davis's) family in Now, Voyager or the tiny barnyard in the actual fairy tale. Cassie is operating in a brains-first business on several continents.

I have a few ideas about fixes, but they'd take heavy rewriting and no doubt defeat your intent. Therefore I bow out and point you Shark-ward.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a fun beach read/tv movie sort of thing. I did have an LOL about mid-way through.

It seems that writers can get away with not being accurate about mental illness, but the 200k word count concerns me.

Anne R. Allen said...

Do you mean the Fay Weldon novel? I think it first came out in the UK in 1983: 70s Feminism parodying itself. A fun read--very funny. That immediately came to mind. If this is a comedy like that, it could be a cartoony romp, but the references to real mental illnesses would have to be eliminated, I think.

Suja said...

I do sympathize with Cassie in the first paragraph - bullied for her looks and fearful that she'd develop schizophrenia. But that vanishes in the second paragraph. Med. school is a place where brains triumph hands-down. Sure, looks matter, like in any school/college, but this is one place, where if she's a genius, she'd be envied. So why would any physician with even a smattering of brains, abuse and ridicule her? Unless, of course, there's another reason for it, something you haven't told us.
Fear of developing any heritable illness is a terrible feeling, and I can understand her fear of developing schizophrenia. But why would she assume that she needs a traumatic incident to provoke it? It can be controlled with the proper medications, which she should know.
Her need for revenge on the professor is what drives her action. So show us why she is so vindictive, and we'll sympathize with her again.
Best of luck!

lora96 said...

I would expect a character with a strong family history of any mental illness to be fairly knowledgeable about both the symptoms it presents and the variety of treatment options available. This sounds to me like the mc is well-educated but shockingly ignorant and thinks she's a victim. Sorry, no sympathy for that.

I'm troubled by the idea of turning to plastic surgery as a solution to what she perceives to be her problems...but that isn't my only issue with the character's seeming lack of relatability.

Anonymous said...

I instantly thought of the She-devil book (or the movie, since I've never read the book, not really my cup of tea).

Which pretty much puts the kibosh on the novel, doesn't it? Because it sure sounds like pretty much the same (basic) story.

Unknown said...

Why do women always have to get makeovers in these stories? This idea that a woman has to be gorgeous and skinny in order to be successful is marginalizing and offensive.

The Foodie said...

My first thought was that I'd seen this movie. "The Girl Most Likely to..." from 1973 with Stockard Channing -- ugly duckling gets plastic surgery and takes revenge on everyone who was ever mean to her. I liked it when I saw it 20 years ago, but I'd feel cheated buying a book with the same plot.

I know nothing about schizophrenia, but I do know about getting into Harvard Medical School -- it's *very* competitive, those people are driven -- and it doesn't sound like this girl has the chops to make it to the first day, let alone make it beyond internship to a fellowship. The believability factor just isn't there for me.

Janet's idea of reading 50 novels that are n the genre you want to write, is an excellent way to learn. At a certain point you stop looking just at the plot, but really looking at how the author treats characters and situations. It's really, really helpful to do this.

Trisha said...

200k?!?! wow!

I agree that she shouldn't have to get the makeover. I really hate it in YA stories and the like where the daggy "uncool" chick gets a makeover and suddenly the hot guy wants her.

A3Writer said...

Everyone's already tackled the revenge and surgery issues, so I'll focus elsewhere. Where's the real conflict? As Janet said, most of the query is back story. After she changes her appearance is when the story begins, but then everything seems to be easy for her.

She goes on an evil rampage that would make Bond villains jealous, and she does it with apparent ease. Where's the conflict in this? Where's the struggle? What are the real consequences for Cassie (see the other comments for the schizophrenia issue) And if plastic surgery can turn a person from ordinary to accomplished evil mastermind, sign me up!

Theresa Milstein said...

I feel there are three stories competing here (which is why it's 200k words): the plastic surgery makeover, the revenge, and the illness.

It should be the bullying with the illness and watch her deteriorate. Or it should be the revenge without the illness and watch her comeback.

I agree with QS, who's the villain and who's the hero? And I agree with Josin, the mental illness piece isn't flushed out.

QS's line made me laugh:

Lifetime movies don't work very well: they don't bear much resemblence to reality and and require so much suspension of disbelief you need to strap on bungee cords to read the damn thing.

I think the initial premise of a fat, homely woman being bullied is good. It's where you go with it that needs some flushing out. Good luck!

Dave Shaw said...

A comment on the comments:

When did the term 'flesh out', meaning to fill in the gaunt carcass of an idea or plot, transmute into 'flush out', which sounds like an action related to a toilet? I mean, there are times when I find the juxtaposition hilarious, but I'm seeing it so often lately that it's losing its punch. No offense intended, of course!

Taymalin said...

I like the idea of the schizophrenia, but if it develops it would change the entire story. Schizophrenia is very debilitating. The main symptoms are hallucinations and delusions. If she had paranoid schizophrenia she would likely suffer from delusions of persecution, which could tie in with the bullying if you were very careful in your execution of the story. Delusions of grandeur are also a possibility.

The other main types of schizophrenia (catatonic and disorganized) probably wouldn't work as well.

I don't know if you're taking the schizophrenia route, but if she is suffering from it she can't be "nursed back to health". Schizophrenia is a highly debilitating, misunderstood mental disorder that can be treated but as of yet cannot be cured.

I also find the ugly duckling trope insulting, and not applicable to the medical field. Grooming and hygiene are important for doctors, being a supermodel lookalike is not.

Stephanie Barr said...

A revenge novel can really work. My favorite of all time, "Count of Monte Cristo" is a case in point, but you have to be sympathetic to someone first.

I understand teasing and obesity. I've more than a passing knowledge of mental illness. You have too many elements that are conflict. You don't need them all.

And you won't be able to take anyone along on your trip of revenge if they aren't already invested and fond of your main character. I don't see it.

Jodi R. said...

Just a thought to throw out there after reading the comments: Couldn't this be a case where the MC keeps worrying about developing schizophrenia, but she actually already has it and is suffering from the delusions, paranoia, etc. others have alluded to? Sort of an "A Beautiful Mind" vibe, where we don't know what's reality and what's in her own troubled head?
This might make some of this plausible.

Sadly, even an extremely well-educated person may not behave the way they are supposed to if they have a serious mental illness. i.e., yes, schizophrenia can (sometimes) be controlled by drugs, but problems occur when the person thinks they are all better and can come off meds. Then the lines become blurred and it's hell on earth for everyone involved.

I think you have lots of work to do (starting with the 50 novels!), but just wanted to throw out a different angle.

Jodi R.
(The other J. Reid!)

jesse said...

Generally speaking, the "in a world" thing is for movie trailers and generally reserved for worlds that DO NOT resemble the world we live in: unless you're doing satire or being ironic.
Also, 200K is too many words for a debut. The plus side here, is that you have a lot to work with when you make your edits/cuts.
After you've done some research, your homework reading, it will be easier to make those cuts.
And seriously, don't be put off by the constructive comments or the work load. As a writer, both will make you better.

Anonymous said...

I think this skirts uncomfortably close to Evil Fat/Mentally Ill person territory.

Stephsco said...

What if this were rewritten, and edited down, as a comedy? Maybe weight loss surgery (not plastic surgery) gives her a new outlook on life and she decides to have fun with people in her past, disguising herself as someone new to snag the old flame, get revenge on a former bully etc. The revenge taken more lightly and interspersed with personal reflection, could actually work. Maybe she could even daydream of doing some "psychotic" things that are currently going on in the story, but her reality is far from that.

Just throwing that out there! Maybe trying something new with an old genre will give new life to this.

Maja said...

Apart from the Schizophrenia and all the rest mentioned here, being German I can't help the feeling that this is just another case of someone writing about a foreign country with little or no knowledge about it. It sounds like Movie-Germany, not like the real one.

Names become modern or old-fashioned over time - people called Hans or Ingrid should be well in their sixties by now. Medical institutes are rather part of a university or another hospital than run privately, and you don't need to be nursed back to health by some assistant (who will have a busy scedule anyway) but check in in a clinic, there's something like a public health system in Germany, and if you've got a job, you get health insurance, which covers mental illnesses, too.

Not having read the book, I can only asume this, but if it really takes place in Germany, I'd recommend a trip and some research on things like common names. I'm sick of books where every German name sounds like it should belong to a nazi or James Bond villain.

Thari said...

I think the worst thing going on here is that this is telling not showing what the story is about. It is a synopsis or book review blurb, rather than a query letter.

Nick said...

I think part of the problem here is the disconnect between the *real* conflict (Cassie's self-esteem issues, mental illness) and the ludicrous plot.

Right now Cassie strikes me as a refugee from a rejected Joe Esterhaz [sic] script (BASIC INSTINCT, SHOWGIRLS *shudder*).

I would suggest you start with Cassie and really explore what she wants, how her experiences have damaged her and what she wants to achieve - if revenge is it that's fine by me, but I would consider toning the rest of the plot down a few notches.

I'm more interested in how Cassie would relate to the people who have tormented her in the formative stages of her life than her ruining Dr. Zimmerman and his squeeze, Ingrid.

You might also want to add Stephen King's MISERY to your reading list.

Good luck revising!

Heidi the Hick said...


He's my favourite Movie score composer! His work on the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are absolutely brilliant!!!

(Please google names to avoid things like this...)

(Also please be careful about using mental illness as a plot device. It's not just that you could offend readers, it's more that you won't get readers, cuz anyone with that condition will pick up this story, go "pffft" and dismiss it as ignorant. Just sayin')

Heidi the Hick said...

just to clarify about the name issue - the composer's name is Zimmer, not Zimmermann, but it was enough to trip me up. Am I the only weirdo who gets hung up on names like that? Is it as big a deal as I make it?

Unknown said...

One of the wisest morsels in this critique is to read 50 novels (preferably debut) in the genre in which the writer seeks to be published. I clipped that paragraph for my tactical novel-writing plan.

Unknown said...

Heidi--you're not the only one, I noticed that too and it really threw me off. I thought, "Wait, what is a film score composer doing operating a medical institute in Germany?"

JS said...

In addition to novels in the subgenre, there are so many good books by people who have experienced schizophrenia and psychosis; I would really encourage you to read some of those before using those issues as plot points.

Henry's Demons, by Henry Cockburn and his father, journalist Patrick Cockburn, is a recent favorite of mine. The Center Cannot Hold, by Elyn Saks, is another magnificent book.

Timothy Power said...

This is the basic plot to a 1973 made for TV movie called THE GIRL MOST LIKELY TO, starring Stockard Channing and written by Joan Rivers! :)

jesse said...

1st rev

I had a similar reaction to the shark. As I read the first paragraph, I though, why would I want to read about this person? The second only made it worse.
Maybe the book doesn't need to be shopped, but maybe there is something compelling to it that we don't see here. Either figure out what that is and put it in the Q, or pop the novel in the drawer and start over.
Best luck.

Melinda Chapman said...

I agree there's too much going on here. Try getting into the head of your character in regards to one main issue first, rather than scraping the surface of many random issues. By doing this you will develop deep and plausible connections to any secondary issues. Or you will find just how much story there is with the one issue.
IMHO the mc isn't enticing to me because she is a lost cause. It's great that she is flawed, for her to be a tragedy unfolding, but I don't get a sense that she will be any different at the end of all this so I don't feel compelled to read how she gets there. Is she just more bitter and twisted? If so, work out what's in the story that will make us get something out of seeing this happen and tell us about it.

Before working on your query, consider a manuscript assessment, or find trusted beta readers to critique your story. I'm going out on a limb here, but I also suggest working on a smaller project [short story or novella] and going through the entire process of beta reading, editing and proofing. It's a great learning experience that arms you to tackle larger projects like novels, and it helps improve general writing skills that will impact even your query. :)