Sunday, August 21, 2011

#209-Revised 1x

 SUSPECTS-83,000 words.

Put all the housekeeping stuff at the end. Start with the good stuff: what happens.

Fourteen-year-old Charlene didn't come home from school today. Friends and relatives do what they can to console the Ives family, but only her safe return will suffice. With no witnesses to the abduction, and no demands for ransom, detectives focus their attention on the parents--they are not telling the whole truth. When a reporter overhears one cop tell another that the father is a person of interest, media speculation runs rampant.

John Ives is hiding something, but it's not the whereabouts of his daughter. It is the government-issue computers in the basement... and his past. Ronald Perkins, a former recruiter for the CIA and now Deputy Secretary for Homeland Security, knows Ives is not who he says he is, but doesn't care. Someone with an IQ of 180 and is not afraid to break the law is a valuable asset. With national security at stake, Perkins mobilizes forces to root out the perpetrators before Ives is exposed.

A waste of time, money and manpower. Her disappearance is not political.

If you stop here, you leave us wondering.  If you put in that last paragraph, we stop wondering.  Leave us wondering. Leave us wanting to read on.

Anna ignores her. The new girl will find out soon enough. Anna Bianchi has been locked in this cellar for more than two years. The same routine week after week, month after month. Chained at the ankle, forced to listen to the incoherent rants of a lunatic, Anna can't take it anymore and wants to die. The new girl says her name is Charlene. It doesn't matter. She's never going home either.

Thank you.

 Much better. Make those changes and I think you've got a good query.

She comes to in the dark. The flannel nightgown, the baggy underpants and the woolen socks are not hers. Panic forces the terrified fourteen-year-old upright. Nausea drains what little strength she has.
She gags with the foul odor in the makeshift prison. The room starts to spin. A shadow within shadows stirs six feet away. The ominous clink of a chain slithers on the far side of the cellar floor. Fettered at the ankle by the same chain someone, or something, pulls her closer...

This paragraph is just an event without any context.

It's the equivalent of putting the first paragraph of the book in the query. Don't do that. A query needs to provide some framework. Without framework, we don't know what's important.

If I were reading this query as a submission, I'd stop here. It feels like a psychological horror novel, and frankly, those things scare the crap out of me, and I don't read them.

Their daughter Charlene didn't come home from school that day, or the next, or the day after that. Friends and relatives do what they can to console the Ives family, but only her safe return will suffice. With no witnesses to the abduction, and no demands for ransom, detectives focus their attention on the parents. They are not telling the whole truth. Within hours, community support for John and Lauren Ives vanishes as media speculation runs rampant.

And this paragraph shows you've got something actually quite good: a high concept novel with a twist on the usual crime novel motif.
Trouble is, you don't have enough. Who's the hero? Who's going to solve the problem? We need the next step to see what the story is about.  You've got the concept here but nothing more.

Ditch the first paragraph. Write the third.  You'll probably have a pretty decent query.

SUSPECTS-83,000 words.

Thank you.


Anonymous said...

It certainly grabbed me, but it doesn't seem to reflect your actual story.

The query should reflect your story, or agents will be asking for material under flase impressions.

Anonymous said...

This one hits one of my pet peeves: sentences like: "Panic forces..." or "Nausea drains..." and worst of all: "The ominous clink...slithers..."

Is the novel is written like this?

Debra Lazar Schubert said...

The first paragraph is creepy, but without context. Lose it. The second paragraph is on the right track. Tell us a bit more about the key players and where the story's going, and you've got the makings for a great query.

jesse said...

As usual, I agree with the Shark.
The first paragraph is good, it makes me curious and want to read more, which is the purpose of a query. However, I can't form a connection with the character inside of a paragraph. Without that, I don't care about the action, and it doesn't work.
That said, I think you have something here. A revised query should get requests from the right agents.

Anonymous said...

To me the first paragraph seems overwritten; if it's a sample of how the book is written, it's not a book I'd like to read. Too many adjectives, the abstract-nouns-as-subject thing, and renaming the character with a description (the terrified fourteen-year-old).

It's a mistake to try to sell your writing style in a query.

Kelly Barnes said...

Same advice - scrap the first paragraph. The second looks like a good place to start.

Think about the piece you're writing and the audience it's written to. Sure an agent's going to look for voice, but if he/she doesn't come away with a sense of an original _story_, you've missed a chance.

Adam Heine said...

It seems like you're trying to hook the agent with your writing instead of with the story. Let the sample pages do that (most agents ask for them, and apparently you can get away with sending a couple even to those that don't).

You can and should show off your writing in the query, but not without doing the work of describing the story.

That said, this does sound like a cool story. I just think you'll hook more agents with a more traditional query.

flibgibbet said...

Even if I ignore the first para, the second tells a story I've watched on TV a few times already. Both in dramas and recreations of actual crime stories.

So if the author has a new twist to the tried and true, the query would be place to prove it.

Anonymous said...

The opening paragraph read a little like a spec screenplay 'action' block, to me - trying to create mood rather than say anything definite.

What I didn't like about the query was the 'voice' it was given in. Whose is it? And if it takes a few days for real worry over the Charlene to build then how can it only take a few hours for the community to turn on the parents? Your described time-scale doesn't read right.

I like the concept but think the organisation of the query needs work.

Theresa Milstein said...

Is this an adult novel? I hope so, since the first paragraph is pretty disturbing. Starting with a fourteen-year-old girl made me wonder. You need more than the title and word count at the end of the query. Don't forget genre!

I'll be looking for your updated query without paragraph 1 and a new paragraph 3. Good luck!

Stephanie Barr said...

This makes me think of several kidnapping/murdered kid cases over the past few years, but doesn't add anything to it.

On the one hand, clearly it's a notion that sells, as the media took full advantage of. On the other hand, I find it disturbing, especially the media frenzy that goes with it.

The situation is not enough, I think, to build a good story. Like the Shark said, you need a protagonist who's doing something in this mess to perhaps save the child or at least find the real culprits.

Anonymous said...

Adam, I would have to disagree about showing off your writing in your query, and here's why.

"Showing off your writing" suggests dramatic, colorful language. In the context of a query, such language calls attention to itself, but it doesn't have any obvious reason for being there, so it looks like overwriting.

All you need to do in a query is demonstrate the ability to write smoothly and grammatically-- so smoothly and grammatically that that reader is unaware of your writing.

Then she can request your manuscript and then you can show off your writing. In context.

Unknown said...

The first paragraph definitely pulled me in but you're right, it doesn't really make sense to have in a query.

I'm also with QS those novels scare the pants off me! The goose bumps made their way on my arms!!!

I'm interested in seeing the third paragraph. Chances are with tigthetning and reading the query guidelines it'll get some decent requests!

Best of luck!

journeytogao said...

Commenters seem to be divided on that first paragraph. Sign me up with the Thumbs Down side. Too wordy and too many adjectives.

Is the author trying to copy the success of query #192 (

Laura said...

That actually sounded pretty interesting to me, but only when it got to the 2nd paragraph. Until then it's kind of like any crime/kidnapping story (sorry, that sounds so jaded). The really interesting part is that the parents are the suspects, and that seems like the part the query should focus on. But still, I don't understand who it's about. Are the parents the kidnappers, or the suffering heroes? Or is the girl the MC?

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

All those pronouns with no antecedents give me whiplash. "She comes to ..." opens the first graf. "Their daughter ..." starts the second, causing my head to jerk up - "What? Wait - Does 'their' include the 'she' in the first graf, or is she the daughter?" It becomes clear, but anthing that slows down the reader's understanding is not helping.

One of my all-time favorite quotations about writing – The reader is your friend. Do him no harm.

JS said...

Start with the protagonist. If it's the kidnapped girl, fine. If it's the parents, fine.

I found the idea intriguing once you got to it, but the disjointed and disconnected paragraphs (not to mention the floating "their" that Ol' Chumbucket flagged) make me concerned that the novel isn't going to be coherent.

Query letters need to be coherent as well as original. Without coherence, originality is useless.

Lehcarjt said...

Yikes. I love the revision with the last paragraph gone. It's got a huge amount of scary tension to it. Exactly how you want to represent this book, I'd think. Good job!

Anonymous said...

Re: the revision: I'm still bothered by the strangely passive, clunky writing. But at least the story comes through a bit more now.

journeytogao said...

Well, go figure. I felt there wasn't quite enough at the end of that paragraph about Perkins, and I wanted to read on. When I did read that paragraph about two years chained at the ankle, I got this horrid feeling -- so horrid that I wouldn't want to read the book because I don't like horror, but I think that means it worked!

Subjectivity. It's what's for dinner.

JS said...

"Someone with an IQ of 180 and is not afraid to break the law is a valuable asset" is both ungrammatical and ridiculous.

High IQ does not make someone a valuable asset--actual useful skills make them a valuable asset. As someone who spent too much of her life teaching college, I can tell you that unfocused and untrained intelligence isn't all that. (And as someone whose IQ is higher than 180, I can tell you that the CIA isn't coming to knock on our doors, either!)

Presumably John Ives is valuable to his CIA employers for reasons other than his high IQ, like his skills and experience (and, as you say, his willingness to break the law for them). Just putting out an IQ number isn't going to make him seem like Sherlock Holmes.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say that I really liked the rewrite (with the suggested paragraph deleted and a 'who' added to the valuable asset sentence).

For me it works because it gives a introduction to the story, without being a blow by blow account of events in the story (which, in my view rarely works although there are exceptions). Also, I like the hook in the last sentence.

Similarly, although I think the rewrite is far better, I didn't think that the first draft was that bad either, provided the first bit is removed.

To me it seems as if maybe, when the author has written a good query, they can't resist adding that little bit extra (something, I suspect, most of us are guilty of every now and again), which then ruins the query as a whole.

Steve Stubbs said...

First off, I think you have some interesting ideas here. That said, here are some comments no one else has made:

Agents read queries looking for a reason to reject you so they can move on and reject the next one. [With maniacal laughter pealing through the agent’s office.] I don’t remember which agent said he is interested in finding a reason to reject you in ten seconds or less but I believe him. So if your query opens with a tacit statement that you have written a Jonbenet Ramsay story knockoff, some agents are going to say: “Aha! I have found the reason I was looking for to reject you. Now where is that ‘Delete’ key?” Then the secretary in the outer office squirms again as she hears maniacal laughter from the other side of the wall. “Why didn’t I go to work for a Mafia boss instead of an agent?” she asks herself.

I have to admit, that was my own reaction. Minus the Boris Karloff sound effects, you understand. If I were an agent, as soon as I got the Jonbenet Ramsay story sense I would toss it.

Ditto with kid gets kidnapped and there is no ransom demand. That is the story of that Mormon turkey in California who kidnapped a “spiritual wife” and held her for some ungodly time within twenty feet of where he nabbed her while the Keystone Kops professed their inability to figure out where she was. You want to avoid the “I heard it all on the news last night” syndrome. Just my opinion.

Finally, I have no idea what “Christian fiction” is, but I would suggest identifying it as “crime fiction” or leaving the genre off, since there is nothing vaguely religious implied anywhere in the query. Without anything to prepare us, the “Christian” description comes as something of a shock. You need something religious in the query if you are going to call it religious fiction. If the girl disappeared into a nunnery to contemplate the meaning of life, that would be both Christian and potentially very interesting indeed. I would read a book like that.

So here is a suggestion: open and lead with your ORIGINAL ideas and play down the overly familiar elements. Try something like this: A fourteen year old girl disappears. The police are surprised when officers at the highest level of the federal government try to squash their investigation. They are further surprised when the father turns out to be an agent for the CIA. They are even more surprised when they find out he is operating out of his basement instead of CIA headquarters at Langley. The senate committee for intelligence oversight is surprised when he does not lose his job or end up in jail for that. The reader is surprised when s/he finds out none of this has anything to do with the story, which is about a kidnapping. The editor will be surprised when her committee votes to acquire the manuscript. My crime novel, SURPRISES ABOUND AROUND, is complete at 80,000 words.

You’d have to re-do that, of course, but it avoids the 6 o’clock news parts. I can see a lot of opportunities here for misdirecting the reader for dramatic effect and creating and sustaining curiosity. Do it right and you may have a winner here.

Janet Reid said...

The only thing wrong with Steve Stubb's post above is that it's the other way around: agents are looking for reasons to say "yes" because the default answer is no.

We don't say that in public very often, and it's disheartening as hell to hear, but it is the truth. Thus it is not "making a mistake" that gets your query rejected, it's NOT enticing us to read on.

There's a very big difference. You can have a perfect template query but if it's dry, boring, and lacking zest, it's not perfect. It's dry, boring and lacking zest.

I'd rather see Garamond italic 8pt font (which I can fix in one second and threaten you with death to never do again) than a dry, boring query lacking zest.

I can whip your form into shape. I can't give you zest.

anonymousmagic said...

"Fourteen-year-old Charlene didn't come home from school today. Friends and relatives do what they can to console the Ives family, but only her safe return will suffice. With no witnesses to the abduction,"

I stopped reading here. If people assume she is abducted without even investigating a possible runaway first (especially without any witnesses), you lost me.