Thursday, January 17, 2013



                                                             INSPECTOR MA LI IS BITTER.

                                 One swing of an enemy's sword destroyed his career as a cavalry officer.

                            No longer fit to fight, demoted to serve as a Police Inspector, he loathes his new
                          post, hates dealing daily with unpleasant people who have done unpleasant things.

                                                          INSPECTOR MA LI IS FRIGHTENED.

                           His family estate lies deep in enemy territory. He has no fortune.  When he rides
                           to his residence, he gives money and food to former soldiers, now beggars. If he
                                                   fails as a Police Inspector, he may join them.

                                                 ONE CORPSE MORE WILL BE ONE TOO MANY.

                            Within weeks of his appointment, three bodies are pulled from canals in his
                     Police Sector. And then, with the chaos of the New Year only weeks away, a teen-age
                                       girl is found hanging. A fourth corpse is one corpse too many.

                                                       PLAY IT SAFE? OR ROLL THE DICE?

                             Overwhelmed by preparations for the New Year celebration, his regular staff
                                                 cannot investigate the case of the hanging girl.

                                    HIS FATHER HAD BEEN A GAMBLER. LIKE FATHER LIKE SON.

                              Inspector Ma violates Imperial regulations, appointing an ad hoc squad to
                                                      investigate the case of the hanging girl.

                                                              WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?

                        Inspector Ma has no time to vet the men he chooses - a clerk with an abusive son,
                                 a Private who once worked for criminal gangs, and a Corporal hiding a
                           deadly secret.  When the Inspector learns the deadly secret he must roll the dice
                                                again.  The Corporal is the key to solving the case.

                                                            CAN HE DEFEAT THE ENEMY?

                       The squad's prime suspect is the son of a high official.  If Ma Li does not solve the
                          case of the hanging girl, he may lose his post:  Solving it will pit him against a
                                    powerful enemy, bent on aborting the investigation at any cost.

                                                                 THE HANGING GIRL
                                         is a police novel in 103,850 words, set in the capital of
                                        China during the Mongol invasion of the late 13th century.



                                                   THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.


this is, hands down, the screwiest format I've seen in a query in a long long time.
It violates every rule in the book, makes up some more rules and violates those too.
It's a mess.

And I'm requesting pages.

Try not to weep with frustration dear reader. Thus was it always so: queries must do ONE thing and one thing only--entice me to read on.

And I do want to read pages from a novel with this setting. This is good clean crisp writing. I see who the main guy is, what problems he has, what choices he faces.

Lousy format and bizarre set up aside, this is good writing.

BUT if you'd like to increase your chances that your query doesn't get tossed for looking like a query for a picture book, remember: left justify your margin, ragged right.

 No bolding. No fancy centering.

PLAIN is good.

ENTICING however is best.



-N- said...

Reminds me of a movie trailer. It grabbed me too though.

Michelle Gilliam said...

So excited, I guess you forgot to write in blue. Hmmm

I couldn't get into it. But hope the writing is everything you want it to be.

Janet Reid said...


nightsmusic said...

I'm glad you could wend your way though this and that it made sense to you. I read through it twice and gave up. I could have copied it and left justified, but what I did understand wasn't my cup of tea.

I do hope you find a complete gem in this.

nightsmusic said...

And I forgot to subscribe to comments.

Anonymous said...







Josin L. McQuein said...

I love this. It reads like the shooting script for a teaser trailer, where the regular writing is what we see on screen, and the all caps are impact lines, swooshing toward the camera on the cuts. And I'd certainly read it.

But I have one tiny, non-query, nitpick.

Your character's name is going to drive people batty. Yes, Ma is a common Chinese surname, but so is Li, and since the surname / first name combo is often flipped in Chinese, you end up with two possibilities:

Family name Ma / given name Li, which is apparently your intent.

Family name Li / given name Ma, which is a common female name. One anyone with a few Chinese friends has likely heard.

Li is most commonly a surname, not a given name. IMO, your character is going to read as female to most people - especially in a historical setting.

Lemur said...

Yeah, it reads like a bad movie trailer. Sure it's got some cliches. Is it possible to write a book that is entirely cliche free? Entire books have been written to prove there are only x number of plots in the universe.

On the other hand, a police novel set in 13th century Japan? Not exactly the norm. Did they call them Police Inspectors back then? Probably not but heck, who cares? I want to read it.

Here's the ONE rule this query doesn't violate: Tell us who your protagonist is, tell us what the main challenge is, tell us what the stakes are.

Having read every single query in this blog, some many times over, I find that it's actually RARE that most writers follow THAT simple rule.

I don't begrudge the Shark her job because most of the time I read these example queries I find myself screaming: "Who's your main character? What do they want? What gets in their way? And why should I care?" Makes me feel like a remora.

It bears repeating. If only because most of the queries here do not do that.

And even if it sounds like a movie still makes me want to read more. Jealous? I sure am. The writing is sparse and crisp and I can imagine that pages will be the same.

Unknown said...

Put aside the format. Put aside the book blurb material. The nugget of the STORY sounds compelling. The setting even more so. My concern would be the length of the work for the market and the obvious rawness with which the author presents his/her material. The story has bones, a structure. Can the author flesh it out, give it a heart, and make it fly? That is why QS would request the manuscript. I can already see the cover in my head. I can already see Ma's face, full of pride and determination. If the author can duplicate that in the manuscript, QS will have something with which to work, maybe. Good luck.

Jo-Ann S said...

I was waiting for the comments about why using enormous indents in a query letter was wrong wrong wrong.

Reading it made my eyes sore.

But the shark lady appears to be more forgiving of extreme formatting than I would have expected.

It's an interesting query, but I wasn't excited by it, though. Good luck, author, I hope to see it in print one day soon.

Jo-Ann S said...

PS - have you pulled your archived queries off the blog, or is it just my computer?

Theresa Milstein said...

I'm not usually a fan of historical fiction, but the brilliance of the format is it does sound a movie trailer. That's how I heard it. So if the point is to grab the reader, I'm grabbed. Such a modern feel. I can feel the excitement as the stakes get higher.

Wish it weren't centered though. If you click on original post under comments, then it looks nice and pretty.

If I had a brainstorm on how to make a super-query that best served my story, I'd break all the query rules too.

Elissa M said...

Yeah, we writers always obsess about the wrong things. Formatting is not nearly as important as story.

True, I'll bet a lot of agents would reject this query without reading it just because the format is painful to look at. But reading it, like the Shark did, shows there's a story here.

Now if the pages are formatted like the query, I'm betting the Shark won't be nearly so understanding.

Nancy Kelley said...

If this book came into my library, I would check it out in an instant. Yes, it sounds like a movie trailer, and yes the formatting is totally wonky. But it's also something very different from run of the mill police novels. Additionally, the stakes are extremely high for the main character, which usually makes for an interesting book.

John said...

Wow. I couldn't finish this.

It's the kind of query that makes me wish I could be an accountant. Entice me to read on? Not even past the third bullet point.

janflora said...

Wait...does anyone else see words floating around in the left margin or is it just me? Is that what it looked like when it was received? If so, I can't believe QS kept reading. Far too confusing for me.
I understand that the query must grab the reader, but why bother having formatting standards and/or requirements if violating them works so well for others? So many agents complain about writers not following the submission guidelines, but I keep seeing examples of how authors have succeeded by not following them. So, the question is why take advice if it doesn't really matter?

Shawna said...

Yeah, I think my reaction was the same as yours. Really weird and kind of hard to read format, but I totally want to read this book.

Brittany said...

It's funny, I do a lot of screenwriting, and the first place my brain went was back cover of the book. There, the formatting would make perfect sense; trailers aren't actually structured like this anymore. (If you tried to write a query like a modern movie trailer, the agent would have nothing to go on!) But it does sound quite compelling, and hey, if the guy doesn't cut it as a novelist, he could probably get a pretty good gig writing cover copy.

Tatum Flynn said...

I am TOTALLY gripped. Would love to read this novel. Maybe because I watched Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame recently, but whatever. Sounds fantastic.

Elissa M said...


I think you missed the point. This query did NOT succeed by not following formatting guidelines. It succeeded in spite of the formatting.

How did it manage that? As others (including Janet) have said: by telling what the story is about and having it be a story that the person to whom the query was sent finds interesting.

Jonathan Peto said...

I guess I can see why this worked despite the bold phrases, which I thought were often too corny. There does seem to be a story there, but isn't that true or possible with a lot of faulty queries? I'd probably suspect the manuscript was full of craft decisions as bad as or worse than the formatting in the query. I suppose sensing the importance of the mistakes is an art.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

This is one brilliant query. It not only dangles an enticing story in front of my nose, but makes me want to read something of a type I would normally bypass. So it doesn't merely attract me, it actually counteracts inbuilt resistance. I know that the use of "police inspector" jars when we learn what period and setting we're in, but the anachronism works to advantage - it's the first surprise for the unsuspecting reader, who is then primed to expect the unexpected.

But please don't lead your query with the title. It gives away a vital turnaround in the plot and destroys some of the suspense. It's better to let the hanging girl shock us when we first see her. (Maybe this comment applies to the whole book and it should be called something else?) I think you ought to leave off any heading and jump straight into your tale.

I agree with the others that we really don't need the distracting film-trailer style headlines. They just bring to mind all those eye-grabbing adverts that web pages are continually annoying us with. They also place another hurdle in the author's path. Why give the overworked agent with the tired eyes [cue sobbing violin] any more jolts of irritation than she is already fending off? This great query will lose nothing by being written in precisely the bite-size chunks that sharks like, e.g.

Inspector Ma Li is bitter. One swing of an enemy's sword destroyed his career as a cavalry officer. No longer fit to fight, demoted to serve as a police inspector [no caps]* . . .

Inspector Ma Li is frightened. His family estate lies deep in enemy territory. . . . If he fails as a police inspector, he may join them.

Within weeks of his appointment, three bodies are pulled from canals in his sector. One corpse more will be too many.**

And then, with the chaos of the New Year only weeks away, a teen-age girl is found hanging.***

Play it safe? Or roll the dice?

Overwhelmed by . . .

- - - - -

*I'm not trying to be pedantic: Since this phrase already has a modern ring, the caps over-emphasise and formalise it, which works against the casual discarding-layers-of-illusion-one-by-one effect that I described earlier. In fact, I'd lose all caps which apply to a job or rank rather than a given name.

** What about reversing these two sentences, as I've done above (and deleting the redundant adjective "police")? It makes a more logical sequence, and the sinister image of new bodies immediately cropping up around him highlights the vulnerability of his professional position.

*** I think you should start this as a different para, and delete the second "A fourth corpse is one corpse too many". The fact that there's another corpse is self-evident, and repeating the "one too many" becomes anti-climatic because it simply tells us what we already know. Each revelation must show something new, to disturb and intrigue us even more, relentlessly winding up the tension. Repetition only de-pressurises the scenario. This statement is used to far better effect in the preceding para when it's still a threat and not a fait accompli.

That hanging girl is powerful. She gets us in the heart as well as the gut. Don't sell her too cheaply.

Rachel6 said...

In spite of its flaws and wonky formatting, I was completely fascinated. The secretive and key corporal was a very intriguing tease; bravo!

The Mike said...

Oh boy. I love the idea that rules are made to be broken, and I'm glad this author has managed to elicit excitement, but I have to share the frustration and confusion of those who are wondering how this one got more than a glance. It is so wildly against the rules, while some agents and editors will can you for using a colon instead of a dash in the subject line.

Oh well, here's hoping for more agents willing to give a query a chance because of its content rather than the layout of its characters.

Laura said...

I have to agree with Leah. It just sounded cliche to me, until I read the last line about the setting. That kind of hit me in the face because it gave me a new understanding of the context, instead of sounding like every single other cop story ever. Just wish the writer had brought that up sooner.

This could either be really good or really bad...

Unknown said...

It was immediately obvious to me why you would ask for pages. Fascinating place, a sense of purpose, and a sense of voice in a commercial novel. So few of the queries on this site achieve close to this.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

I agree with the point made above: we really do need to have the ancient Chinese context revealed to us earlier, in the story itself. Otherwise it just seems like another slice of film noir. Nothing wrong with that, but we’ve seen it a zillion times from Bogart to Scorsese.

You could perhaps hook your period setting to the “new year” reference and then focus in, e.g.

> Overwhelmed by preparations for the New Year celebration, his regular staff cannot investigate the case. These festivities will be greater than usual because they mark the Yuan Dynasty’s __th year in power / they mark Kublai Khan’s __th year as Emperor

which also raises the stakes by adding tension – the Inspector being surrounded by harassed officials who don’t want to get this particular gig wrong, and he’s in their way. The abrupt shift from Chandleresque mean streets to old-world China is unexpected and draws me in. A medieval setting and a detective monk sure didn’t do Umberto Eco any harm.

Also: In the segment beginning “Who are these people”, could you leave out the last sentence ("the corporal is the key to solving the case")? I think it gives too much away. You could end that para with “When the Inspector learns the deadly secret he must roll the dice again”. Otherwise it defuses the rest of the characters and takes our attention away from them because we realise they're not where the action is. Just hearing that the corporal holds a deadly secret is enticing enough. I’d rather look at a lineup of suspects and be kept guessing.

french sojourn said...

The chinese menu formatting didn't bother me, as the writer had an interesting story to start with.

I find the story really interesting and would read it.

I feel that something is missing in this query. I liked it,there was a lot of work put into it, that shows, but feel that it wasn't honed.

Querys are a real female dog to get perfect, making that first impression.

Good luck with this one.

Anonymous said...

I would read this in a heartbeat. It reminds me of a Joe Abercrombie novel.

french sojourn said...

I came back 6 weeks later and gave it another once over. Still a great query.

I spent a couple days after reading it initally and researched this locale and time period.

Would love to read this story, kind of reminds me of Yojimbo, Kirasawa's masterpiece.

I hope you undate the status on this one.

Jackie Randall said...

I've been writing and rewriting for four years, learning the 'rules', changing everything in my manuscript that breaks the rules. I keep reading books, and finished one just a few days ago, that break rules left, right and everywhere... but they're published... by big publishing houses. And, after being frustrated so many times, I've finally figured after finishing this last book why this query works... because the story is good even if it breaks the rules.

Anonymous said...

I would definitely read this book. The setting, main character, and plot all sound compelling to me (in that order).