Sunday, September 30, 2012

#228-revised once

It’s a case of maternal love-at-first-sight for nurse Beth Ward when she sees the mysterious baby boy who’s been abandoned in her hospital. After enduring a life of abuse and abandonment of her own, she’s filled with an unshakable need to protect him. When the baby is declared a ward of the state, Beth is determined to adopt him. She risks her career, her relationship with the doctor who loves her, and possibly even her life, to make him her own.

After Beth achieves her desire and the adoption is final, her life is one of blissful contentment until the day she learns that her boy may be a kidnapping victim. Beth must decide between concealing his secret in order to keep the son she’s sacrificed for and come to love so deeply, or risk losing him forever to the grieving parents who gave him life. As Beth’s actions affect the destiny of countless lives, she discovers the possibility for joy in the midst of tragedy.

 This is the story right here. You'll need to expand on it. Tell us more about the birth parents. I think this would be agony for birth parents--their child doesn't know them, and to take their kid from the only mom he's known--talk about a dilemma. And at some point there's a crime being investigated here, right?

I almost never tell a writer to write MORE in a query, but you need more of the story here. Forget all the stuff about how Beth got him. Focus on when she's about to lose him.

BABY JOHN DOE (92,000 words) is a completed work of women’s fiction. I received inspiration for this story while working as a hospital medical coder. 

I get my best ideas in the shower but let's not put THAT in a query either.  Inspiration is important to the writer but meaningless in a query. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.



Revise. Resend.

Dear Query Shark,

Johnny is kidnapped on the day of his birth. Beth is a divorced, childless, and jaded nursing supervisor who's given up hope of ever finding love and happiness. BABY JOHN DOE is the story of how the course of their futures are forever altered the instant their paths cross.

This is so general it's meaningless.  The one specific thing you have -- "Johnny is kidnapped"-- gets buried instantly.  We don't even know if Beth kidnaps him, or is the one who gets the heat (she should have been supervising more closely) when he goes missing.

Start with something specific---and connect it to the next thing that is also specific.

The moment Beth sees the mysterious baby, injured, unconscious, and alone, she believes she's been placed in his path to save him. While trying to adopt Johnny, she battles hospital administrators who want to take him off life-support, skepticism from her new friends, and even betrayal from the man she loves. When all seems lost and Beth contemplates ending her life, the baby miraculously awakens.

What? This doesn't make sense to me. Because you start with the fact that Johnny's kidnapped, we're expecting Beth to be the victim or the perpetrator. You've led with the wrong thing. The important thing isn't that Johnny is kidnapped. The important thing is that Beth found him alone and tried to help.  One of the elements of good storytelling is knowing where to focus your reader's attention. If you tell me to focus on the kidnapping --which you did by virtue of it being your first sentence--I'm expecting something other than what you're now telling me is the story.

If I'd read past the first paragraph, this is where I'd stop because right here is where it's clear to me  that you don't see that this is disconnected and that means you won't see it in your novel.

Your query tells a story, it should entice me to read MORE of the story. 

As Johnny grows, Beth marvels at the remarkable person he's becoming in spite of his disabilities. The only thing marring her new life is the nagging fear that his real parents will appear one day to claim him. At midnight on Johnny's eighteenth birthday, the kidapper calls Beth to tell her who Johnny's real parents are. Expecting the worse, Beth is amazed when she becomes united with Johnny's family through the love of their son.

I have many family members who joined us via adoption, I strongly STRONGLY object to the idea that birth parents are the "real" parents. Seeing that won't make me stop reading a query, but a book that promotes that idea wouldn't be something I want to take on and promote.

Also, more important I bet Beth doesn't think of those people as the "real" parents either.  If she's saved this kid and been the mom all these years, her viewpoint is probably just like mine: she's the mom. This kind of inconsistency bodes ill for the novel. 

Johnny matures, marries and has a son. Tragedy strikes when the baby needs a liver transplant to survive and Johnny dies without warning from a brain aneurism. Johnny's liver is transplanted into his son, saving his life. Even though she's grateful that her grandson will survive, Beth is angry with God for trading Johnny's life in the process. She wonders if everything she and Johnny went through was worth it. During his funeral, as Beth hears how numerous lives were changed through Johnny's inspiring influence, she realizes that even though she set out to save his life, he saved hers in the end. For the first time in her life, she is whole.

And there's no plot here as far as I can tell. There are events and lists of challenges and obstacles, but there's no mention of choices or stakes. You really need choices or stakes to be clear otherwise I read this and think "so what." That's not the response you're looking for. 

Also, you've just told me the entire story.  Don't ever do that. The purpose of a query is to entice me to read the pages.  This is like telling someone "Bruce Willis is dead" and then asking them to buy a ticket to the the movie***.  Why would I when I know what happens?

BABY JOHN DOE is complete at 92,000 words and is my debut novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


It's really important that you focus only on the start of the story and the plot in a query. The reason I beg plead cajole INSIST you read the QueryShark archives is so you can see how effective queries unfold and how to get the plot on the page concisely.  This query doesn't do either of those things.

And you don't want to summarize the novel or give a complete synopsis of it in a query.  It defeats the entire purpose of your query.

Re-read the archives. Start again. Resend.

***this movie


Anonymous said...

Oops, and I spelled "here" wrong! HEAR. "Wanna 'hear' a joke."

Anonymous said...

A chronological narrative really helped me revise my query. Surprisingly, you can leave out a lot of the backstory that you might think is vital. A person reading a query or jacket description hones in on the marrow of the story (the present) and doesn't stop to question a lot of the background's details. It helped me to visualize the specific way my characters would alter their world...and then throw boulders on their path to doing that.


Theresa Milstein said...

This read like a hybrid between a query and synopsis.

The part I didn't understand is if a baby has been kidnapped, I would think the authorities would be called and on the lookout for a parentless baby showing up in a hospital. The baby would also have footprints recorded at birth. Wouldn't those be in a database to be matched?

Yes, the query needs work and maybe even the story based on it not being clear what's at stake, like Query Shark points out. But it also seems like there are plot holes.

GillyB said...

I think the problem with this one is not the query (which is, of course, not a query) but the novel. There is no real plot. There's a series of events, spanning someone's entire life, and then at the end there is a sappy conclusion. There is no single inciting incident that leads to big dramatic choices for the main character. Beth doesn't act. The only action she makes in the story, as you've told it, is to fight to adopt the baby. And then all these circumstances occur that are utterly out of her control.

Start again. Take the basic concept- mysterious baby is found, Beth decides to fight to adopt him- and start there. What happens? Is the baby still under threat? If Beth stays with the baby, will she be in danger too? Is it best for Johnny to find his birth parents? Or is Beth's love strong enough to thwart everything they're up against?

The kidnapper to me is the interesting part, and he's not really addressed in the query. He's only mentioned as a way for Beth to find out the identity of Johnny's birth parents. These birth parents should be a MAJOR cause of drama, but you dilute it by saying they bond with Beth over Johnny.

This book feels like it's at a low boil, and yet it also feels melodramatic. That scenario at the end with the liver reminds me of My Sister's Keeper, an ending which made me hurl the book across the room (I get why Picoult chose it, I still don't like it).

You don't need to follow Johnny's entire life. I'd recommend focusing on only one part of it, preferably the beginning, and what exactly Beth has to do. What choices she has to make. What the stakes are.

Kristin Laughtin said...

If I'm following this plot correctly: someone else kidnaps Johnny, then promptly abandons him, and he ends up in Beth's hospital. If this is the case, do we really need to know about the kidnapping in the query? You could just as easily simplify and say that she connects with this abandoned, sick baby. The reader won't be mad if the kidnapping is revealed later, provided it's written well, of course.

Like Janet said, you don't have to reveal the whole story in a query; if an agent wants to know it before reading a full, they'll ask for a synopsis. You just want to include enough to entice the reader to begin your story without confusing the heck out of them.

Laura W. said...

The main problem for me was figuring out who was supposed to be the main character -- Johnny or Beth? The first sentence makes me think it's Johnny, but the rest of the query letter seems to be about Beth. There's a big difference between a story about "I was kidnapped as a baby and raised by my adoptive mom, and I want to know my birth family's story" vs. "I adopted an abandoned child, he's the one meaningful thing I have in life and there is no way in h*** I'm letting anyone take him away from me."

This seems to be about Beth's fight to keep Johnny despite various obstacles like kidnappers, birth parents, disabilities, and a heartless bureaucracy. There's got to be a better way to pitch this than writing cliche after cliche: "course of their futures," "forever altered," "paths cross," "when all seems lost," "tragedy strikes," "for the first time in her life she is whole," etc.

Anonymous said...

Why would someone who kidnapped a baby (a serious crime) contact the adopting woman and confess to his/her crime 18 years later and tell her where the birth parents are? And why would she believe the caller? Did she struggle with going to the parents or keeping it to herself?

And as someone else noted, you can't just adopt any baby you find laying around - surely the authorities would be looking for the baby and trying to find the baby's parents, who presumably reported the baby missing, right?

Anonymous said...

Huh. I see the long comment in which I spelled "here" wrong got eaten by blogger or nixed by QueryShark. For the record, am not author of this query.

I still think we need a plot point. I nominate "Why someone kidnapped Johnny in the first place."

Kate said...

If Beth is so determined to fight for the baby, why contemplate killing herself? Seems illogical and against the idea you previously set up - that she believes it's her destiny to save him.

Laura W. said...

@Alaskaravenclaw: Seconded. For the 2nd plot point, I would like to nominate "Why Beth even wants to adopt the baby in the first place."

Laura Mary said...

There really does seem to be some gaps in logic/plot holes here – in the synopsis at any rate.
The kidnapper at this point seems to exist purely to create events in the story (the abandoned baby, the introduction of the birth parents) Even peripheral characters need motivation and believability. Why did they take the baby? Why did they then abandon it? Why have they kept track of Beth all these years and why wait till Johnny was 18 before contacting her? And why contact her at all?!?!?! I understand nothing of this person’s actions.

I don’t think the role of the kidnapper is needed at all. Personally I’d find a child genuinely abandoned by its mother a much more fascinating read. What if the mother kept tabs on Beth and Johnny all these years, and eventually got back in contact herself? I feel as though the kidnapper takes away all responsibility so that the birth parents are ‘blameless’ when it comes time for the reunion. Which is just plain dull to read.

Give us conflict! Give us drama! Give us something to care about!

Good luck with the revision :-)

Sia Jayaram said...

It looks like you could have conflict here but
1) you're not really highlighting your conflict
2) you've got too many conflicts.

So first decide what your primary conflict is
1) Is it that the baby is kidnapped?
2) Is it that the birth parents want to take the baby away?
3) Is it that John(the son) decides to give up his life to save his child? (I know he doesn't - but wouldn't that be a good conflict?)

I see 3 conflicts, 1 of which should have been in your query. But you have all three and you've resolved them right there in the query. And the resolution wasn't satisfying.

Every novel has many sideplots but not all of them belong in the query.

Mister Furkles said...

This plot is a lot like George Eliot's (aka Mary Anne Evans') Silas Marner from the mid 19th century. The biggest differences, aside from the period, are in conflict and tension. If you get a copy of Silas Marner from the library you will see conflict and tension throughout. If the manuscript has major conflict (either inner conflict or outer), then show it in the query. What Beth wants is clear. Who is stopping her is not clear. The main conflict is not obvious or it is insufficient for a novel.

If you revise the manuscript, you may get rid of the concern about baby footprints and adoption regulations by backing the time frame to the late 1920's. You could then follow Silas Marner's conflict by have Johnny born to a wealthy couple who will try to get him back. The kidnapper may be diagnosed with a terminal disease and want to make his sin right by telling the birth parents. You can add a lot of tension by having Beth and Johnny struggle through the great depression and the beginning of World War II.

Anonymous said...

WHAT??? BRUCE WILLIS IS DEAD?? Awww mannn... That's one movie I'll never rent.

Aruna Sharan said...

From the first sentence I was with the birth parents and not with Beth at all. Why are they never mentioned again until they are needed? What about THEIR anguish, their hunt for the baby? If it is Beth's story you'd have to make the baby abandoned, not kidnapped, for it to make sense,for us to empathise with her.

Angie Brooksby said...

I read through the comments and agree that there seems to be too much information for a query that feels tired. I think that completing a 92k piece of fiction is worth congratulating and having the courage to ask the shark to bite is a big accomplishment. I hope the author has the energy to try again.

Dani said...

I wholeheartedly agree with the fact that a query shouldn't involve a full synopsis, but at a workshop last month (held at a convention my dream agent also attended), I was told that you always must include a line explaining how the story ends.

I'm going to trust QueryShark for now because hell, it just reads better without the ending shoehorned in.

But can anyone offer me opinions on why I might have been told otherwise, or whether that method might hold water with some agents?

Laura W. said...

"affect countless lives"?

Natural disasters and wars affect countless lives. Obviously Beth's decision will affect many lives besides her own, but "countless lives" seems like a huge exaggeration.

Laura Mary said...

#first revision

Ah! Better! I feel that the kidnap element is shown in a better context here - it no longer feels like a clunky plot device but a really interesting twist.

Interested to see how this query progresses :-)

Theresa Milstein said...

I see more of a conflict here than in the last query. But I agree we need more detail. After the first paragraph is taken out, there's just the one.

Beth said...

This looks like she not only revised the query, she revised the story. For the better, I might add.

Christine Tripp said...

I would really need to read the story first to see HOW the nurse was able to even get the baby but, typically, an infant kidnapped, then found would not be put up for adoption! At least not for a long, long time. The police would be well aware of a report stating a baby had disappeared. I can't imagine how this all went down, unless the nurse kidnapped him too?