Sunday, February 19, 2012

#220-revised 1x

 Dear QueryShark:

When dinosaur rocker Doug Flynn croaks on stage at the end of his set, DJ Ronnie Fox is told by KXLA FM to wax poetic on the topic. Ronnie’s played this game before. What goes out over the airwaves sounds so sincere that he is chosen by listener Kellie Coogan. She sees Ronnie as the one person she wants to confide in about what she saw backstage the night Doug Flynn died: someone messing with Doug's personal stash.

I can hear you hitting your head on the desk and saying "but you told me to make the sentences shorter and here you are making them longer! What are you DOING, SharkForBrains?"

My reply is this: that's the first revision. Then you see it's a huge sentence. What ELSE can you take out without ruining the rhythm?

Here's the next revision:

What goes out over the airwaves sounds so sincere that he is chosen by listener Kellie Coogan. She sees Ronnie as the one person she wants to confide in about what she saw backstage the that night Doug Flynn died: someone messing with Doug's personal stash.

Revision is making a change, then making another change, then another. It's hard to see all the words that need to come out on just the first pass.

Ronnie handles what he sees as a potential for trouble in his usual fashion – he hangs up on her. Unfortunately, KXLA’s address can be Googled. Before Ronnie can make a clean getaway, Kellie shows up at the station. It turns out she’s not so bad looking, so Ronnie begrudgingly agrees to help Kellie prove Flynn was snuffed by what he sniffed.

The problem is someone saw Kellie backstage. They know she has something in her purse. In the span of a few short days Ronnie and Kellie will be drugged, mugged, tied, cuffed, stuffed, and boxed. Worst of all, Ronnie will have to spend the night at his parents’ house for the first time in more than a decade.

UNNATURAL ACT is a comic crime novel that comes in at 86,000 words. The book introduces Federal Agents Billy Dobson and Eldon Booth, who dive so deep undercover, they often forget that they are looking for criminals and not really members of a rock band, or Hollywood stuntmen, or pro surfers.

I have worked as a standup comic and as a comedy writer in radio. I am currently the producer of a weekly one-hour talk show on XM Radio that features conversations about aliens, ghosts and other paranormal phenomena.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Much improved.
I'd read pages.

Make SURE you've got your sentences in fighting trim before you send your query out. You don't want to be revising madly when you get requests for pages.

Dear (Your Name Here) QueryShark

Ronnie Fox hates answering the request line; all he hears from are drunks and late night security guards - and they all want something – free tickets or a few hundred bucks in cold, hard cash. On the night after dinosaur rocker Doug Flynn dies onstage during his comeback tour, Ronnie makes the mistake of feigning reverence and is chosen by listener Kellie Coogan, who was backstage and is certain of foul play.

You've punctuated this first sentence oddly. If you take out the phrase between the dashes the sentence doesn't make sense: "drunks and late night security guards free tickets or a few hundred bucks." A dash is like a parenthetical statement. If you take it out the remaining part of the sentence should stand on its own.

The way your sentences flow is the difference between fluid or clunky writing. Consider this: Ronnie Fox hates answering the request line. All he hears from are drunks and late night security guards. They all want something: free tickets or a few hundred bucks in cold, hard cash.

I really REALLY like the phrase dinosaur rocker. You'll earn extra eyeball time on a query with phrases like that. It gives me hope.

You're trying to get too much information in to that last sentence so it's awkward. Shorter sentences help.

So Ronnie does the adult thing – he hangs up on her. Unfortunately KXLA is listed in the phonebook and before Ronnie can make a clean getaway, Kellie shows up at the station. Reluctantly, Ronnie agrees to help Kellie prove Flynn was murdered, but not before undercover rockers and FBI agents Billy Dobson and Eldon Booth apprehend them, figuring the sack of cash makes them the criminals.

One of my biggest complaints about crime novels with amateur sleuths is the lack of a compelling reason for the sleuth to investigate. "Reluctantly Ronnie agrees" doesn't tell us anything. And you're missing an opportunity here: Ronnie agrees cause Kellie is cute; Ronnie agrees cause Kellie threatens his dog. In other words, the reason he agrees gives us a clue about character.

And then you have a sentence with 34 count 'em 34! words. In other words: a lonnnng ass sentence. There's a place for long ass sentences. Treatises on Faulkner come to mind. Generally they are NOT a good stylistic choice for a 250 word total query letter. Short and sweet is good.

UNNATURAL ACT is a comic crime novel that comes in at 86,000 words and moves at a rapid clip. It is the first of a planned series of books featuring Billy & Eldon, who dive so deep undercover, they often forget that they are looking for criminals and not really members of a rock band, or Hollywood stuntmen, or pro surfers.

Comic? Um. Well, ok, if you say so, but I really hate to see you set yourself up like that. Telling me something is funny (or comic) means I'm always asking "is this funny?"

SHOW me it's comic. Dinosaur rocker is a good start.

Don't tell me it moves at a rapid clip. Anyone who writes 33 word sentences is immediately dis-membered from the Rapid Clip Club.

Just to be cruel, I toted up the word count in your first eight sentences:

Before you get hot under the collar about this, let me just tell you that I learned about counting words in sentences from a guy who is damn fine writer: T. Jefferson Parker. He's got a couple of Edgar Awards that show I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Jeff Parker once told me that he counted sentences in paragraphs and words in sentences as a way to increase tension. At the climax, the sentences and the paragraphs got shorter; the words fewer. In other words: short crisp sentences are more energetic and keep the reader moving along at that rapid clip you want to claim.

So when you tell me your book moves at a rapid clip, but what I see are looooong sentences, I conclude (perhaps erroneously) that you want your book to move along, but your sentences aren't actually doing the job.  Show me a brisk query; I'll show a book that moves along at a good clip.  SHOW don't TELL.

planned series of books featuring Billy & Eldon

WHOA! Holy CANNOLI!! WAIT. Leave the Cannoli, bring the gun! The protagonists are the FBI guys?

You introduce not one but TWO other characters, neither of whom are the antagonist before you bring on the main guys?

The problem with this is not that you break the rules. I'm happy to have you do that if you can make it work. The problem is we know nothing now about the guys who carry the story. We're all intrigued by Kellie the either hot-maiden or cold-conniver, and Ronnie Fox, depressed DJ, only to find out those aren't the main guys.

You've got to add more information about these good fellas if they're the main guys. 

The author has I have toiled as a standup comic, as a comedy writer in radio and is currently the producer of a one-hour talk show on XM Radio that features conversations about aliens, ghosts and other paranormal phenomena. He keeps his own beliefs close to the vest.

Don't talk about yourself in the third person. The QueryShark finds it annoying.

I don't care what you keep close to your vest. I only care about your book.

Thank you for your consideration. I have enclosed ... (whatever the particular agent has requested per their submission requirements)

I don't have a real sense of this book from the query. It's not enticing cause it's too sprawled out. Four characters, no antagonist, no sense of what's at stake.

I might read pages if you sent them with your query but sadly, if I'm not utterly delighted with a turn of phrase on every one of those pages you send, I'll probably say no with a form rejection.

And those long sentences just fill me with despair.

This is a blisteringly tough category to break into and you've got to be spot-on from the get go.


Steven J. Wangsness said...

Comedy is hard. I'm funny in life and in short pieces. And while there's the occasional yuk in my novel, mostly it's dead-on serious. My attempts to write humorous fiction fall flat. So...I hope the author has succeeded, because good comic novels (think Carl Hiaasen) are so few and far between.

Jessa Russo said...

I have to agree with the Shark. I was completely confused by the statement that Billy & Eldon were the characters in the series. I had to scroll back up to see who they were.

I would be more intrigued if the books focused on Ronnie, the hapless DJ turned super sleuth.

But hey, what do I know, I'm just a fellow long sentence writer too. ;-) In fact, after reading my query again (the one I submitted to QS) I realized I included a dooooooooosy! *hangs head in shame*

Lady Epsilon said...

Maybe I'm missing something, but why do the DJ and the superfan have a sack of cash? Where did it come from? Why do the FBI agents think it's connected to a rockstar's onstage death? I don't think it's mentioned anywhere else in the query.

Lexi said...

Where did the 'sack of cash' spring from?

Theresa Milstein said...

"Don't talk about yourself in the third person. The QueryShark finds it annoying." This is a classic example of showing humor.

I agree, the first sentence and doesn't make sense without the dashes. Actually, those are hyphens. You are supposed to do a double dash on each side with no spaces to make them dashes. (My recent grammar class has come in handy for correcting mistakes I used to make like that.)

I also agree with Query Shark about varying sentence length, with short sentences better for action and tension. One of my first critiques taught me I needed to vary my sentence lengths more. It's probably the kind of thing you don't notice until it's pointed out to you.

Since this query isn't actually about the protagonists, I can't imagine what a rewrite will look like.

Unknown said...

Short sentences, huh? *checks her own query* *blushes* *hunts for a hack-saw*

Thanks, #220, and QS!

JS said...

There is nothing my husband and I love more than snarky, funny whodunnits. Please whip this into shape so it can get published and we can read it.

I didn't even understand that Ronnie was a DJ at first---"request line" wasn't enough on its own to communicate that to me. "Is chosen by" doesn't make any sense for a while, either.

Also agreeing with everyone that you start with the protagonist(s)!

Rachel6 said...

While I agree totally with all the other comments about focusing more on the actual protagonists, I've also got to say that the brief little glimpse we get of Billy and Eldon right at the end was intriguing. (Yeah, and there's *my* long sentence!) FBI agents who immerse themselves so deeply into their roles as to forget that they're roles? Hmm...

The Busy Author said...

I love the sound of Ronnie as a character, but I am not enthusiastic at all about the two FBI guys. Because I know nothing about them? I was all excited to think this was a series about Ronnie, but not to be.

Fiona Paul said...

I also wondered about the cash and had no idea Ronnie was a DJ. If you were going to keep any permutation of line 1, I'd say just insert 'DJ' before the name for clarification.

Why use a semicolon in such a long sentence? I tend to only use them to join very short (like 3 or 4 words) related sentences.

I'm also not sure about deep cover guys in the public eye. Won't people wonder what happened to the rock stars once they become surfers? Then again, it worked for Miss Congeniality ;)

It took me, like, five tries with the capcha. I think I might be a robot...

Kristin Laughtin said...

I agree on the oddity of listing Billy and Eldon as the recurring characters; in fact, I had to reread a couple of times and then wondered if the querier had listed the wrong names by accident. Is that the case? If it's not, are Billy and Eldon the POV characters? Rewrite the query from their perspective. Are they just random characters who will show up in your other novels, about different amateur sleuths? If so, it's not important--and it's really confusing--to include the tidbit about their appearances throughout the series.

Vivian said...

I would rather read about Kellie and the dj than a couple FBI agents who haven't really been described. Maybe they're just as interesting as the first two characters you mention, but based on this query I don't know that.
I think you have an interesting setup, but I like the shark's advice about sentence length. Personally, I think there are a few instances where long sentences can work, but I don't think a query letter is one of them. Good luck with the book!

Rachel6 said...

I like the rewrite! I especially enjoyed the lines "prove Flynn was snuffed by what he sniffed" and the entire paragraph starting with "someone saw Kelly".

Jessa Russo said...

I love the revision!

Sorry! There is a but ...

I must say that I am STILL completely uninterested in the FBI agents. So, not that I have ANY idea what I'm talking about, I have to wonder if you should to create a stand alone OR series about Ronnie first. Then, what if you could lead up to a spinoff for the agents later?

Am I crazy with this idea?

Jessa Russo said...

... should TRY to, not should to ... I'd blame it on auto correct, but this was just good old fashioned failure to proofread. Grrrrrr.

Elissa M said...

I like the rewrite very much, but I'm also scratching my head about the FBI agents. Is the book about them or about Ronnie and Kellie?

If it's about Ronnie and Kellie, it makes no sense to mention the agents at all-- they're just recurring characters in the series. However, if Billy and Eldon are major players in the novel, they need to be more than a toss-off sentence at the end of the pitch.

Laura said...

I love how the rewrite showed the humor instead of telling you the book is funny. "Snuffed by what he sniffed." "Worst of all, Ronnie will have to spend a night at his parents' house for the first time in over a decade."

Criticus said...

A few observations:

1) A dinosaur that croaks is a bit of a mixed metaphor.

2) I don't think you need to say that KXLA's address can be googled. We all live in the Google age. (By the way, proper nouns are capitalized, verbs are not.)

3) "snuffed by what he sniffed": confusing because this could describe a "natural" drug overdose. Use a phrase that reminds us the issue is foul play. Maybe even "snuffed out" would do the trick.

4) I still think it's a problem to introduce two major characters in the second-to-last paragraph.

Miss Emma said...

So, regarding the issue of the FBI agents not being introduced until the second to last paragraph, it doesn't strike me as a problem, assuming they are not the primary protagonists. It's not the first time i've heard about a series strung together by a character (or set of characters) who assume only a supporting role. For example, in Murder on the Leviathan, Erast Fandorin doesn't make an appearance for the whole of the fist 150 or 200 pages.

What seems more problematic (although not necessarily a problem) is you've introduced, not one, not two, but FOUR detective figures. That's a lot of sleuths on the scene. Seems like it could get a little over crowded. I could see it working, in a farcical comedy of errors sort of way...just make sure that each of them is specific/necessary enough to warrant such a crowded cast.

Beth said...

This is way better and way funnier. But it still doesn't seem to be about the FBI guys. They're just thrown in at the last minute, like before.