Sunday, October 23, 2011


Dear QueryShark:

Felix Ramos had always dreamt of working in space, but a journalism degree does not an astronaut make. Given an unlikely opportunity to fulfill his childhood fantasies, he leaps at it, unknowingly launching himself into a place balanced precariously between tedium and terror.

As a human kill switch in an artificial intelligence-managed resource exploration station on one of Saturn’s moons, he finds that ticking boxes and pushing buttons is awful, even when it’s done where no man has gone before. His counterpart and confidant, Cara Moretti, occupies another facility, where she discovered this unpleasantness months ago. Their days are rigidly structured by their employer, the Koyamatsu Interplanetary Development Concern.

And then the Russians invade—or at least Felix swears so, pushed into paranoia as unidentifiable lights and figures flicker on the horizon. These are the opening shots in the campaign of a group of militant conservationists who wish to stop private development in space; Felix soon finds himself the target of cajoling, gaslighting, and bribery for access to his station’s AI core. Deluded into imagining himself as a highly-paid double agent, he begins to make noticeable mistakes.

Cara, meanwhile, discovers that her company hasn’t budgeted for bringing both of its employees home. She’s been cleared to go, but her new friend has not. If she keeps her mouth shut, she knows she’ll see Earth again, but her conscience screams for her to risk abandonment to save his life. Her predicament could become moot, though: Felix has triggered a surprise visit from Koyamatsu, which threatens to aggressively smooth any embarrassing wrinkles in the operation.

Different Atmospheres DIFFERENT ATMOSPHERES is a speculative fiction novel complete at 72,000 words.

Book titles are in caps.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is a stunning turnaround. You've gone from "this is a mess" to "I'd read pages" in ONE revision.

When two deep space researchers are set up to fail by a ruthless employer on an inhospitable moon, they must decide whether to resign their lives to inertia or fight for uncertain freedom.

This is a log line. Avoid them.

Think about it: it's a false choice. If they resign their lives to inertia, there's no story.

And worse, this kind of log line doesn't entice me to read on. Again, the goal of a query letter is to entice the reader to want more.

Log lines are imported from Hollywood, and they have NO place in query letters. I don't care what any one else says, even normally smart agents. I'm right and they're not. Log lines are of the Devil. Shun them.

Different Atmospheres is 72,000 words of speculative fiction set on Titan, a moon of Saturn covered in hydrocarbon oceans and methane glaciers.

Felix Ramos, young, inexperienced, and idealistic, operates Ontario Station in the southern hemisphere. Cara Moretti, wise, professional, and sick with wasted potential, occupies Kivu Station to the north. As the sole inhabitants of their semi-automated research facilities, the two are dependent on each other for the real-time communication and commiseration that bat back the boredom and depression of isolation.

This is all set up. Unless you're querying a child of six with no background in the science fiction genre either in books or movies, you don't need all the set up. Saturn's moon is enough. We know it's cold. We know it's isolated. (There are days I'd pay good money to work there)

And then the Russians invade--or at least Felix swears so, pushed into paranoia as his station’s computer mysteriously malfunctions. Cara, meanwhile, discovers that her employer hasn’t accounted for bringing both of its researchers back home, which becomes the least of her concerns as a shadowy group of conservationist saboteurs struggles to gain control of the moon.

He's going nuts...and? She finds out it's a one way ticket ...and?  You need the choices and what's at stake for us to care about their situation.

And "shadowy group of conservationist saboteurs" is as one-dimensional description of a villain as I've seen in a while. It's actually a reason I'd reject this even if the writing was any good. Boring villains make boring books.

Thanks for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you. No, you probably don't.

This is a mess. Start over. Focus on ACTION not description. Tell us what's at stake and what choices the main characters have to make. Give us a compelling INTERESTING villain.


Anonymous said...

So sayeth the Shark, who liberateth us from the tyranny of Hollyweird.


Tioka + Nicolas said...

Ouch. What not to do seems clear. It's the what to do part ... conveying a clear conflict, original characters, complex villains, world, stakes, turning points... in one page. It's sooo painful.

Max said...

There's something about seeing your query tossed up on someone else's site that really lets you pick out the awful parts (about 90% of it). The critique helps a lot, too :) The conservationist group actually aren't villains; I'm being way too coy in this query.

I agree with everything up there. I do wonder about defining the degree of isolation my characters are up against. This is sci fi, yeah, but there isn't one level of technological sophistication present in the genre: they could be operating in a world where virtual reality is popular, or one in which FTL travel is common. In my novel, the characters are pretty stuck. I worry about allowing the reader to assume too much about their situation--what do QueryShark readers think?

Katrina S. Forest said...

Max -- I assume all kinds of things about how the story's going to go when I read a query. Doesn't mean I'm right. Doesn't mean I'd feel cheated if I picked up the book and it didn't go like I thought.

If you've got the reader imagining what your world is like while they read the query, you're doing something right. If you bore them with backstory, you're doing less right.

Anonymous said...

That's the spirit, Max!

Max said...

@Katrina | For sure, I don't want to bore with backstory and I obviously have to fix that paragraph. I just wonder if establishing that A) there's no easy way out, unlike, for example, Star Trek and its inexhaustible supply of dei ex machina, and so B) my characters are kind of forced to provide support for each other is exceptionally boring backstory rather than set-up for what happens later.

In a lot of sci fi, it wouldn't be a technical challenge to communicate in real time with someone virtually anywhere, whereas it's a major issue in my story.

Man, query letters are tough.

Anonymous said...

No log lines? Wow... I hadn't heard that before. Most of what I've seen for query letters has said to include them. I'll keep this in mind for next time I write/revise a query, though. Good to know.

Max, as far as making sure the reader understands how isolated it is, I think you could accomplish that by using words like 'cold,' 'desolate', 'barren', that sort of thing. Just a few words that connote isolation without having to go into a whole paragraph about it.

Unknown said...

Sci-fi doesn't have to be like 'star trek' et al, but if you set it on Titan, where the technology is present for humans to survive, then IT IS sci-fi. You have to decide at what level you pitch it at but have to assume that anyone wanting to read a story with this setting is likely to be sci-fi readers to begin with.

All you need to set the 'no travel' scene is to state that they have no way off site.

I wouldn't worry about the set-up too much, just concentrate on the story - the challenges from the inciting incident onwards.

Theresa Milstein said...

No log lines? I'm shocked by this advice. Shocked. There have ben log line contests throughout the blogosphere. We're supposed to be able to spit out our log line to any agent who asks. And I've read advice about how the first sentence in a query should be a log line.

I agree there's too much background. I'd like to get a better sense of plot and choices.

I like the idea of fighting for uncertain freedom. What makes dystopian interesting is the protagonist figuring s/he is being oppressed, but realizing the alternatives may be scarier than the oppression.

Colin Smith said...

I've also heard it said from the various inhabitants of Suite 500 that synopses are of the Devil. But we still get asked to write them! Oh how I wish Janet Reid could write the rule book for querying and we could be done with log lines and synopses forever! But alas! Every agent will insist on doing things their own way. :)

With regard to the query, I concur with much of what's been said. I particularly agree with what "Me" said. Only I wish he'd used his name because that sounds wrong!

jesse said...

Max, you only get 250 words - chose wisely.
Often in good SciFi, complex characters exist in their own universe, an unseen world of intricate nuance. It is impossible to boil that ALL down and make it interesting.
There's just too much information in here. Narrow the focus. Intrigue us, intice us, make us laugh, make us care about one problem, and imply the rest.
The goal is to get us to want more - not to summarize.
That said, I see potential. Start over.
Good luck.

jjdebenedictis said...

What's the story's inciting incident? Instead of a logline, that's what you should use as your hook.

The inciting incident is the thing that kick-starts your story. It should appear in the first paragraph, right after a very lean sketch of the important backstory.

In your case, the invasion is clearly the inciting incident, so I'd recommend a first paragraph like:

Felix Ramo operates Ontario Station in the southern hemisphere of Saturn's moon, and Cara Moretti occupies Kivu Station to the north. They depend on each other to stave off the depression of isolation, but that bond becomes a life-line when conservationists attack, trying to gain control of the tiny world.

Then you can talk about what Felix and Cara try to do, how their plans go awry, and how each new complication raises the stakes.

Felix losing his grip and Cara finding out they're on their own are complications. You need to ensure the reader knows what plan of action those complications are getting in the way of.

For example, Cara's original plan was obviously to call home for help. Finding out "home" has no intention of helping scuppers her plan and raises the stakes by making her realize she's on her own.

The next plan might be Cara trying to assemble a strategy for defence with Felix (plan), only to learn he's mentally unstable (complication) and might be a liability rather than an ally (stakes rise).

By the end of your query, you should have manipulated your protagonists into the book's worst dilemma/hardest choice/trickiest trap. Then, leave the reader with no idea how the protagonists escape. That serves as a cliffhanger ending.

This isn't the only way to write a query, obviously, but I find it's a useful way to assemble your plot points into a gripping summary. Best of luck with this!

JS said...

And I've read advice about how the first sentence in a query should be a log line.

I've never seen an agent give that advice.

Max, I love your idea, I think. So cut to the chase (to use a Hollywoodism). "Stranded on one of Saturn's icy moons, Felix and Cara must {whatever they must do}."

BP said...


Stijn Hommes said...

Sorry author:

Not only does the query fail to entice me, the story also suffers from a bigger problem. It's unrealistic to have one person keep a moon base running without any sort of help.

I would reject this because I can't suspend disbelief to that extend.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I like the writer's voice but I don't understand much about the story. What I read is that two bored people live on a moon that is invaded. Shouldn't they be excited that something is finally happening. Why the Russians? What makes the Russians sci-fi?

What is important about the moon being invaded? What is at stake? What are they losing, gaining? How does their relationship change?

There are so many elements that seem disjointed, the employer, his paranoia and inexperience?

Karen Baldwin said...

I love to sip my favorite coffee and read your comments. Aaah!

Lorelei Armstrong said...

As a long-time science fiction reader, I would also suggest that you need to tell me why there are humans on this mission rather than robots. And it had better be a scientifically valid reason.

Keith Popely said...

Dear Shark, I think you should put this in it's own box off to the side:

"Focus on ACTION not description. Tell us what's at stake and what choices the main characters have to make. Give us a compelling INTERESTING villain."

This is the best - and shortest - description of what a query letter needs to be that I've come across.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the advice. I'm trying to figure out a query without sounding mundane or cliche. As far as villains, I am following Donald Mass's book's advice and finding reasons that the main character might like her and might hate her and what makes her a three-dimensional evil person. I'm having a lot of fun with my villain.

Joel Brown said...

Dude: know the genre. Don't get immobilized by it, but be aware of Sam Rockwell's movie "Moon", of Bruce Dern's brilliant "Silent Running". I like the idea of the polar tension. The eco-terrorists (and that's the term) sound interesting, but that's obviously their way off, when the betrayed researchers ally with the invaders. Don't leave the key to the locked room hanging outside the door.

jesse said...

Congrats, looks good.

Unknown said...

I'm surprised the QS says she'd read pages based on the revised query - isn't a good 50% still back story?

I still don't think I know who the bad guys are - why do they want access to the AI core? What's their goals and what does this have to do with Felix not being able to get back to earth?

The query is definitely better but I think if this was a first attempt the QS would shoot it down. Maybe you caught her on a good day ...

Anonymous said...

I was about to mention Sam Rockwell's MOON. This takes the premise of that indie movie and seems to add a few more layers of complexity.

Vivian said...

Great job on the revision! In fact, when I started reading it, I thought "How did I miss a query?" I didn't realize until halfway through that it was the same one that I'd read a few weeks ago about Saturn's moon. This time you made the characters sound much more interesting and likable. I would read this book.

Bill said...

This is an excellent query, but how did everyone let you get away with calling it a "fiction novel". Pick either fiction or novel.

Janet Reid said...

Bill, normally I'm as rabid as they come on "fiction novel" but this is "speculative fiction" which modifies novel. Spec fic is a category, much like science fiction novel is correct.

But, I'm glad to see you know NO FICTION NOVEL is the rule!

Theresa Milstein said...

I agree, what a turnaround. It's so much clearer now. Great job!

Anonymous said...

I wish high school English classes would teach kids about the Poetics, which emphasizes strong plots based on one character taking one powerful action, similar to what you recommend.

From talking to people, I feel like most of us learned more about stuff like imagery, less about stories. As a result everyone wants to come up with great descriptions of places or moods, but we don't know how to write stories.

Cleo said...

Some advice that I've come across is that all popular books have some quality or something about them to make them very unique. Just about all books are unique, obviously, but maybe you should find what makes your book cool and special, and find a way to stress that? Depending on what that charastic is ... maybe that could help. I've gotten really picky about books needing something differnet about them after I started writing mine. It's not done yet, but so bizare that I don't even answer people when they ask what it's about. Seven years of spacing out can do that. Maybe you'll see a query letter of mine on here some day.

Brenda said...

Just in to this blog, via a publisher and I will post sometime soon, when the fins stop approaching me in the water - or when I don't feel I'm shark bait. Great site.

Laura said...

"A journalism degree does not an astronaut make." Love that line, I have to say. :) The voice really comes through clearly in this query.

Christian said...

I'm confused on the log line issue as well. In Noah Lukeman's e-book "How to Write a Great Query Letter," it specifically states that the first sentence of a query should be a log line. Just shows that every agent will have their own preferences. I respect Janet Reid's opinion though, which makes it so hard to hear of her hatred for log lines, considering the countless hours I've spent perfecting mine!

Janet Reid said...

Is Noah Lukeman still advising queriers to send their letters by FedEx?