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.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

#200-revised 2x

Dear Query Shark,

Looking back, 16-year-old Marine Desmona can clearly count every one of her stupid mistakes.

story starts here ------>The first mistake was dancing with Duke Sinclair and letting his cold hands touch her while his eyes absorbed light in that uncanny, lifeless way. The second was going to the stable alone where he could ambush her and rape her mind. The third was not fleeing Adara and heading for Atlantis the moment she had the chance. But of course, she would never have left her father behind. Not then.

Don't be afraid to say less. Building tension in a query (and a novel) is often taking stuff OUT rather than putting stuff in.
Now, locked in a magic closet and chained to a conjured bed, she can only dream of rescue from the madman who torments her with scandalous caresses and cruel promises. The sorcerer who means to make her his bride and condemn her father to a future as a soulless slave. All because she has magic, a throwback heritage from the days when Adaran kings hunted witches.


If anyone other than the duke should discover her powers, they’d burn her alive in front of cheering spectators. The duke, however, doesn’t plan to give her up. No, he wants to use her. More to the point, he wants – needs – a womb that can pass on magic to another generation. And her womb is uniquely suited to the task. Their shared heritage can grant Duke Sinclair immortality, for he plans to leech into the bodies of their offspring and be reborn again and again, always inhabiting nubile child-flesh.

Grabbing her one opportunity for escape, Marine rushes out of Adara and toward Atlantis, the pagan City of Magic. There she intends to become more powerful than Duke Sinclair so she can kill the sorcerer, thus ending his reign of secret blood-magic and freeing witch-blooded Adarans from his control. But mostly, so she can save her father.

 Do you see the difference here? This is what I'm endlessly yammering about when I say "pare away everything you don't need."  You don't need any of the stuff I struck out; your query is tighter and the level of tension ratchets up.  

One of the biggest problems in novels I see is over-explaining.  You don't need to explain everything. In fact, it's better if you don't.  Let the reader gradually discover the background of the main characters.

And here in a query, less is often more because your goal here is to entice me to read on. STOP when you have enough to do that. 

Cutting all the extra verbiage has an added benefit: it drops the word count from 332 to 169.  There's a reason good queries should be 250 words or fewer: it forces you to focus on what's important, remove all the extra words, and stop when you've said enough.

If your query is longer than 250 words you have NOT accomplished those things.

THE DESMONA CHILD is a standalone 70,000-word YA fantasy. The sequel, THE DESMONA BRIDE, chronicles the fall of Atlantis and the crucial role Marine plays in its destruction.

This is a pretty good query at this point, but now you need to make sure your novel shows the same polish. Are you over explaining there? Did you front-load the novel with a bunch of backstory and set up?  One way to find out is to look at where the novel starts.  Does it start with Marine dancing with the Duke? If it does not, you might want to think about changing that.

Also, "Marine" as the name of a character in a book about Atlantis is a bit precious.  

Dear Query Shark,

Marine Desmona is shocked when an heir to the Adaran throne asks for her hand in marriage. Intent on understanding why the powerful Duke Sinclair is interested in unimportant her, Marine snoops out answers and uncovers a dangerous Desmona family secret. When she develops strange new abilities, a more immediate problem arises: in Adara, the use of magic is outlawed and she could be burned alive if her new powers are discovered.

The Desmona family’s heritage isn’t a secret to the Duke; he knows Marine’s witch-blood is manifesting. After generations of non-magic offspring, she is the legacy of two powerful bloodlines. Duke Sinclair plies Marine with seductive promises of unimaginable power, but she refuses him. Sinclair murders Marine’s mother with his own well-honed magic and threatens to kill her father if she doesn’t submit to his demands.

Marine flees her home hoping to learn how to master her gifts and free her father. The distant island of Atlantis, where magic-users are honored and revered, is the only place she can hide while Duke Sinclair is on his quest for everlasting life. Marine is hard-pressed to conceal her magic and evade the interest of everyone she encounters on the way to Atlantis, her fate depending on whether she can outrun the duke… and her own unpredictable magic.

THE DESMONA CHILD is my 104,000 word stand-alone fantasy novel. A sequel, THE DESMONA BRIDE, is currently in the works.

You're getting all caught up in details here. We don't need details. We need broad brush strokes of the plot, and MORE than that we need a reason to care about what happens. Right now Marine is pretty one dimensional. 

This is much better than the initial version.

Start over and use the chopping I did here to guide you on what to leave OUT of the revisions.

Dear Query Shark,

I am looking for an agent that likes fantasy/mythology with a twist. My debut novel, THE DESMONA CHILD, is a 106,000 word work of YA/Fantasy that leads up to the fall of Atlantis.

Don't start a query with what kind of agent you're looking for. It's absolutely understood, and therefore does not need to be said, you're looking for an agent who likes your work. Don't waste time telling me what I already know.

The ladies room is hardly where Marine Desmona expected a proposal. She had danced, giggled and enjoyed the night right up until a mysterious Duke cornered her and vowed everlasting love.

You don't complete the thought here. The Duke is the one who proposed in the ladies loo? (charming)
And you'll need to explain why he's in the loo to propose.

In the tumultuous weeks following that event Marine is conflicted, but never more so than when she learns that she is the key to bringing magic back to the kingdom of Adara - and that having witch-blood makes her appealing to the Duke because he wants to create a progeny of untold magical power. Such a child could have god-like dominion over life and death.

"create a progeny" is a very stilted way of saying what you mean here. And why is Marine (egad, what a name) conflicted? What's inherently wrong with what the Duke wants? Who wouldn't want what he wants?

A long journey to escape the Duke leads Marine to the literal doorstep of a fabled haven, the legendary Atlantis, where she hopes to disappear…

Ok, well, I don't get this at all. Atlantis is legendary because it's in legends, not because it was famous when it existed. I think you're confusing the two meanings of legendary. Also, why does Marine think she'll disappear in Atlantis? That's akin to saying you're on the Titanic cause you want to hang out in the North Atlantic in a lifeboat; how would you know?

Also if this thing with Atlantis is at the END of the book, it really has no place in the query. A query should entice me to read on with the events that happen at the START of the book.  

You'll be better off starting over with the the name of the main character, what choice she has to make, and what the dire consequences are for each.

I am querying widely, but will grant exclusivity if you are interested in seeing more of my work.


Do not ever OFFER exclusivity.
It's bad enough some agents ask for it, but do not ever OFFER first in a query letter.
Exclusivity is almost never in your best interest. Don't give up any advantage you get by querying widely.

This query doesn't fail cause of form, although that needs work.

It fails because there's not enough about the main characters to have me connect with them and be enticed to read more. There are 122 words in the paragraphs about the book. You've got room for 100 more easily.

There's a lot to be said for short and sweet, but this is too short to do the job.

Form rejection.