Saturday, February 23, 2013

#238-revised twice

Second revision

Dear Query Shark:

Reed has reached the pinnacle—a beautiful fiancée, successful career, prestige—but the toll for all this is too high. Directed to bury a damning memo, he knows he’ll lose his soul if he continues working at his law firm. He decides to opt out . . . way out and leave all the shadows of success to find something else. But what? An old friend suggests that Reed consider a refugee camp along the Thai-Cambodian border as a place to start, where he soon finds himself in the middle of a Cambodian civil war and the aftermath of Khmer Rouge genocide: perdition.

If you add one word to this you'll change everything:  Reed thinks he's reached the pinnacle.

Adding that one word tells us that this is going to be a novel about a guy who finds out life isn't what they told him it would back there at WhiteShoe Law Review.

He still sounds like a total drip (I'm sorry but he does) It would help if we had a sense that he'd struggled to get where he is, or the thing he was asked to do seemed a little more dangerous (hell, we bury damning memos here every day of the week, and twice on Festivus).  You mention "past wrongs" farther down. What were they?

And it will help if we have a sense of why he thinks going to Cambodia during one of the worst genocides we know about seemed like a good idea.

At first Reed works hard to try to make up for past wrongs. But his motivation quickly turns deeper when faced with the cold reality of the refugees’ plight. These newfound convictions put him on a collision course with Dith, a murdering Khmer Rouge operative who brutally conscripts refugees. Their battles culminate when Dith kidnaps Reed’s new friend, seemingly perfect Sister Claire. Reed calls in a favor from a powerful Washington, D.C., ally to save her; now he’s in trouble with the Thai government.

What's he doing to make up for past wrongs? In fact what wrongs?

Amid the chaos Reed not only connects with his own buried morals but also with Sister Claire, who impels him to examine the path his life has taken. Yet he discovers he isn’t the only one running from a past. Sister Claire has a stunning secret of her own that, when revealed, flips Reed’s retraced life upside down.

THE UPPER AIR, a 92,000 word commercial fiction, is set in 1980. It is my first novel.


You're drowning in generalities. Be specific.

It will really really help if you can frame the antagonist in a way that doesn't make him a cartoon.  The Cambodian Holocaust was awful, but there were true-believers.  Your job is to convey why they were, and to make us see their point even while we don't agree with it, and certainly don't agree with the results.

You have to show me there's a story here, not just cardboard characters moving through an exotic landscape.

This doesn't work yet.

First revision
Dear Query Shark:

When the senior partner at his law firm directs Reed Sutcliff to bury a damning memo implicating his client in covering up defective heating units, he knows it’s wrong—continue down this path and he will lose his soul. Deciding he needs to put as much time and distance between himself and his current situation, Reed takes a sabbatical from his firm. Of course, he will miss his fiancée, Suzanne, but he has to sort this mess out.

You're writing like a lawyer and that is not a compliment.  Law school beats the "trust your reader" stuffing  right out of you.  Here at Fiction Central, trusting your reader to fill in the gaps will be an enormous asset not a liability. I know, it's a world gone mad.

By trusting your reader I mean you can leave out things. Consider: Asked to bury a damning memo, Reed Sutcliff knows he'll lose his soul if he continues working at his law firm.

There are two advantages to this: you cut the number of words spent on set up, and it's zippier.  I'll even spare my usual rant about starting with a clause rather than my preferred subject/verb/clause structure.

With the help of Suzanne’s father, a powerful member of Congress, he heads to a refugee camp on the Thai and Cambodian border and finds himself in the middle of a world of dire suffering. There he meets Claire, a remarkably caring, gifted, and enigmatic woman—who is also a Catholic nun. Although she initially gives Reed the cold shoulder, his tenacious attempts to befriend her pays dividends.

And here's just more set up. It's not that big a deal that he meets someone in his travels. I'd be shocked if he didn't. It's not a big deal she gives him the cold shoulder, he's probably utterly useless at refugee work, and certainly if he's trying to hustle her in to the sack she's not going to just fall all over him.

What's the story here? Why does he persist? What is it about her/the situation that calls to him. For that matter why the hell is he in Cambodia in the first place.  Unless it's listed under Places to Save Your Soul in Lonely Planet, there must be something there.

But all that matters not a whit cause what you don't have here is PLOT.

After they have several harrowing scrapes with corrupt border operatives, most notably a murdering wretch named Dith, and amid the daily chaos, Reed eventually finds himself falling for Claire. He’s certain nothing can come of it; still, he can’t shake these feelings. He’s bewitched.

"Murdering wretch" is such an unequal pairing that it made me laugh. It's like nefarious unicorn or wily sloth.  

And still, despite those murderous wretches and their nefarious ways, There Is No Plot here.

And the irony of a Catholic nun being "bewitching" is not only not lost on me, it makes me wonder if you don't realize how funny it is.  Witches not being something nuns aspire to and all.

When Claire winds up in the hands of Dith, Reed takes a risky course of action to rescue her that results in his expulsion from Thailand and lands him back in the States. Now what? Should he return to the life he had—Suzanne, money, power, and prestige—the good life, or should he leave it all and return to Thailand for seemingly unrequited love? No doubt, it’s messy, but life and love often are.

Winds up in the hands of? She hailed a cab and he was driving? He hijacked her mule? She took a wrong turn at the footbridge?

And sadly, this reveals the problem with the novel: Reed is kind of lame. Why is he dithering if the woman he loves is in the hands of a murdering wretch? He's going to leave her there and return to the vapid Suzanne and her porkbarrel paterfamilias?

I understand this is not a romance, but the idea that he just leaves her there makes me wonder why I ever got in book with this guy.

THE UPPER AIR is a 96,000 word romantic novel set in 1980. It is my first novel.

 Oh wait, it is a romantic novel.

Ok, I take it all back. Reed better get his asterisk back over there and rescue her.

This is still not working. There's no plot, there's too much dithering and Reed is a damp rag of a hero. 

This whole query needs a good stiff dose of starch. There's not enough substance here to entice me to read on. Come to think of it, that's what I said on the first version of this too.

Dear QueryShark:

I see from your Publishers Marketplace listing that you have represented Book/Author XYZ.

This makes me crazy. It's akin to saying "hi, I see you are breathing."  What you need here is WHY you're mentioning Book/Author XYZ.

Yes, I represent Jeff Somers. So? Unless you are writing top notch commercial urban fantasy like TRICKSTER, it doesn't matter that I rep him.

Also, you want to be VERY careful about Publisher's Marketplace.  Unless you've actually read the book that's listed, it's very easy to think it's a comp title when it isn't. Remember, Publishers Marketplace lists books before they have been published.

And the ten-twenty word buzz phrase that's listed in Pub Mkt is NOT a reliable indicator of whether the book is a good comp for your book. Trust me on this please.

Comp titles should be published books. If you want to use a comp, you say I see you represent Jeff Somers, author of Trickster. Readers who like Trickster (like me!) are the audience for this book.

Reed Sutcliff sits on a bench looking out over a frozen Lake Michigan wondering, Where in the heel did it all go wrong?  As a successful attorney, he had it all complete with a beautiful fiancée, Suzanne Warner, and her well-connected father, a powerful member of Congress.  Reed's charmed life crashes down on him when the head partner in his firm asks him to engage in some questionable ethics and tactics.

Where in the heel?
This is a textbook illustration of the value of reading your query out loud. You'd have heard heel and known in wasn't the word you meant to use. Your spell czech does not recognize homonyms as errors.

Also, this setup doesn't make Reed Sutcliff sound enticing or interesting. He had a charmed life? I'm kinda glad life has taken a turn for the worse for him then. 

Also, "asks him to engage in questionable ethics and tactic" makes Reed's charmed life crash around his head? Unless Reed is facing jail time, this doesn't seem all that serious. It makes Reed sound naive and wet behind the ears. Those qualities are not the qualities of a romantic novel hero. 

To try and sort out his life, with the help of Suzanne's father, he goes to a refugee camp along the Thailand and Cambodian border.  There he meets Nicki, a remarkably caring and gifted woman—who is also a Catholic nun.  At the camp, he witnesses the terrible condition and treatment of the refugees.  During several excursions outside the camp, he encounters a nasty border operative named Dith.

This is actually where your story starts. I'll eat my rosary if a Catholic nun is named Sister Nicki though.

And you'll notice that your main character is very passive here. He's witnessing and encountering. He's not involved. He doesn't really seem to have anything at stake. He's a cardboard cutout of a character. This bodes ill for my interest in spending several hundred pages with him.

Reed's growing attraction to Nicki adds to his confusion regarding his life.  Besides his uncertainty concerning his career, he must now sort out his feelings for Nicki and then reconcile them with his relationship with Suzanne.  Of course, it won't be easy.  Love never is.

This is tepid. You've got to insert some vim and vinegar in this narrative or it will be too flat to hold anyone's interest.

THE UPPER AIR is a 96,000 word romantic novel set in 1980.  It is my first novel.


Contrast what you wrote with the jacket copy of another male protagonist romantic novel THE CHOICE by Nicholas Sparks:

Travis Parker has everything a man could want: a good job, loyal friends, even a waterfront home in small-town North Carolina. In full pursuit of the good life-- boating, swimming, and regular barbecues with his good-natured buddies--he holds the vague conviction that a serious relationship with a woman would only cramp his style. 

That is, until Gabby Holland moves in next door. Despite his attempts to be neighborly, the appealing redhead seems to have a chip on her shoulder about him . . . and the presence of her longtime boyfriend doesn't help. Despite himself, Travis can't stop trying to ingratiate himself with his new neighbor, and his persistent efforts lead them both to the doorstep of a journey that neither could have foreseen. 

Spanning the eventful years of young love, marriage and family, THE CHOICE ultimately confronts us with the most heartwrenching question of all: how far would you go to keep the hope of love alive?

Can you see the difference? For starters the language is more vibrant. Second, we see the tension and understand the plot, and what's at stake.

Romance novels aren't plot driven, so everything depends on writing characters we want to spend time with, that we care about.

I'd suggest reading more of them to really see this. Read as a writer does: watching how the author turns a phrase, introduces a character, keeps you reading on. It's helpful to keep a writer's journal where you write this stuff down. The act of writing helps you understand things more fully, and helps you remember stuff. Just READING isn't enough if you're analyzing books.


Ellipsis Flood said...

I can't put my finger on it, but something about this query's writing is off. It sounds very distant to me. Word choices like heel (this is not the way you want people to crack up at your query!) and charmed life make it sound weird, almost like English isn't the writer's first language.

The last paragraph bothers me especially. He likes Nicki. He's engaged to Suzanne. Love isn't easy. It has been done before, so where is the part that tells me why I want to read this instead of any of the other romance novels out there?

BP said...

Woah, but I think Pride and Prejudice is a great "Romance" novel that is plot driven. Sure, we READ it for the characters, but it's got one heck of a plot, too.

Romance for the sake of romance is nice for a quick beach read, but it's too one-dimensional for me to call it a hard, fast, rule in the world of romance writing. Call me an idealist for the classics, but romance can have some pretty dern good plotline in it,'long as the author's actually going for something more than cheap, easy, summer beach reading! ;D

Melissa Dymock said...

Thanks author for having the courage to put yourself out there. Sounds like you have a vibrant setting and unique time so that will set you apart. Just bring the excitement of that to your query.

Theresa Milstein said...

Wow, your the Nicholas Sparks contrast really shows the difference between the queries. It also does a good job bridging the first part of the story with the second.

This writer didn't take the same care to bridge those paragraphs, so I don't understand what the first part has to do with the second. And I see what QS means about the protagonist being passive. When I first started writing, a lot of things happend to my characters. I didn't understand they had to drive the story. In this case, it could be the query, but it could be a flaw with the novel. I wish the writer good luck.

I wonder if the writer used "heel" to avoid swearing.

Anonymous said...

First we're on Lake Michigan, then we're in Thailand. And I'm not sure why we're in either place. There are lots of places where you can go to see people being treated badly.
But if your protagonist doesn't do anything about it... why go?

A story requires action on the protagonist's part. If Reed finds out Dith is "rescuing" refugee children and selling them to brothels in Bangkok, and Reed decides to put Dith's nasty prostitution ring out of business, kicks serious human-trafficker ass, and then helps Sister Nikki (!) set up a school for the quondam victims, say so. We'd all like him for that.

But if Reed just watches Dith do bad stuff, and feels bad about it... that's not a story.

To try and sort out his life, with the help of Suzanne's father, he goes to a refugee camp along the Thailand and Cambodian border.

would read much more smoothly as

To sort out his life, he goes to a refugee camp on the Thai- Cambodian border.

(Mind you, that's a smoother sentence stylistically. It still doesn't make sense in human terms. Surely people who've been through hell deserve better than to have some troubled, passive dude from Chicago inflicted on them?)

Anonymous said...

PS-- Props for your research. Teh google is telling me Lake Michigan did indeed freeze over in the winter of 1979.

Mame said...

~I found this query too passive as well. The protagonist never gets around to making any sort of decision, or showing that he CARES about making a decision. Without social/emotional/mental/etc. conflict, a novel simply doesn't work.

The Outsider said...

You really do need to explain more about Dith. It sounds like they're the main antagonist (otherwise why are you mentioning them in the query?) which means they're a huge part of the conflict that drives the plot.

And we need to know about that conflict because right now Reed sounds like a weak rich guy on a poverty tourism holiday. That sounds harsh, but it's the impression coming through right now. You need to show us why we should care about Reed and Nicki when people are literally dying all around them. The stakes in a love triangle seem relatively low compared to having to choose which of twenty dying children should get your last dose of medicine.

Fatboy said...

"He had a charmed life? I'm kinda glad life has taken a turn for the worse for him then."

I love you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting such a great query critique on a romance! I'm in the middle of revising my YA romance and had NO IDEA what to do for the query, as my previous book was a medical sci-fi. I tried constructing the query the same way and it just wasn't working.

The contrast between the two queries is one of the most helpful things I've seen on querying romance. Thanks again!

Angie Brooksby said...

So why did he leave to go to the refugee camp? What does that have to do with it all? What's the hook?

It sounds like the writer is worried of offending the reader, or their mother. Too careful, too politically correct. Let's get opinionated!

It sounds like the writer is worried about who would not approve of what she has to say.

GillyB said...

First of all, congrats on not only writing a novel and a query, congrats on being brave enough to subject yourself to being picked apart by total strangers!

There could be an interesting story here. You have a great setting (I actually worked for a summer at a Thai refugee camp!) and the groundwork for what could be a compelling love triangle-ish thing. But the writing plain needs spicing up and polishing. Not only is the character passive, but the writing is too. Amp up the drama. What choice (beside his choice between Suzanne and Nicki, the name your are most definitely going to change) does your protagonist have to make? What main conflict is going to set up the climax?

Not only do I feel like your query could use stronger word choices, I also feel like it needs some editing. I get nervous when I read constructions like "on the Thailand and Cambodian border." That's messy. It should be "on the THAI and Cambodian border", or "on the border between Thailand and Cambodia."

I think this query could benefit from more personality, both in the characters and the writing. The Thai refugee angle is pretty unique.

Also, I know nothing about word counts, but is 96,000 a little long for a romance? I'm sincerely asking.

marin sj said...

This query hit me instantly as Changing Lanes meets The Killing Fields with a dash of The Firm thrown in—schizophrenic ideas in search of a story.

On the other hand, an overly-blessed, hence guilt-ridden, American who leaves his equally spoiled lover and goes off searching for meaning and purpose in life, who falls in love with a devoted Catholic nun in the midst of the killing fields, may not be the most original storyline but it’s certainly got potential to be a wonderful novel, with a love/betrayal/probably anguish and certainly no simple ending storyline on the personal level set against the wider landscape of political upheaval/national tragedy/cultural decimation/devastating human suffering.

The problem with virtually all modern romance novels is they have no driving storyline about anything that matters. It’s also a good part of why this little snippet appeared in Road and Track magazine:

ROAD TO TRUE LOVE: “Mountains of unsold romance novels are returned to publishers’ warehouses each year, and usually have little practical value. However, Great Britain’s The Daily Telegraph reports that 2.5 million such soft-cover books were successfully shredded, then mixed with asphalt and used to surface a new M6 toll road. The construction company used 92,000 books per mile, and predicts excellent adhesion and durability.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, why is Casablanca going to live forever? Because Rick, thanks to Ilsa and Victor, climbed out of his self-pitying, self-serving emotional swamp and realized that “the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

I suppose there’s nothing inherently wrong with writing saccharine drivel. Nicholas Sparks has made a fab career of it and I’d trade his success for my lack of it any day. But I don’t know how he sleeps at night. There’s already so much mediocre, unchallenging trash out there in the marketplace. If you’ve got the ability and opportunity to write something of lasting value and meaning then why not try, and avoid having your sweat and tears soon forgotten, remaindered, and perhaps used to make asphalt.

I hope the writer of THE UPPER AIR can and will produce a novel worthy of the apparent intent of that noble title.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

Sounds like a fun read, lots of twists and turns.

A couple of observations. Your MC doesn't sound like a lawyer. The jargon is off. It isn't a "head partner," it is a "senior partner." You have to define "questionable tactics and ethics." Some days that is part of the job. Be more specific, " . . . . charmed life . . . down when his senior partner orders him to (destroy evidence, lie in a hearing, suborn perjury, whatever). The stakes need to be spelled out.

If you haven't read any Grisham, I suggest it to get the legal jargon and cadence correct. Otherwise there will be clinkers.


Greg L. Turnquist said...

You hit the nail on the head citing the underlying plot of Casablanca. I can handle romance if it has a real story.

Lara said...

Not that I'm a nun, but if Reed thinks he's going to be able to convince a nun from another country to "drop" the nun stuff, you should do a little more research into Catholicism. Nun, especially those in other countries, are very passionate about what they do and often go "into the business" as an opportunity. It's not like in the US. If he does go back to save her, I'm betting all my hymns that she would thank him and go back to serving the poor.

Theresa Milstein said...

There's definitely more detail about his time out of the country here, but still no plot.

I have a couple of issues with the story. I think there has to be some inkling that something is happening between him and the nun before the kidnapping. Otherwise, it seems like he's wasting his time. And if he leaves and she's in trouble, who needs him? If she got saved before he left, we need to know that.

Theresa Milstein said...

I still can't get a handle on Sister Claire. "Seemingly perfect" is the first impression. I'm not getting what's at stake with her. I agree with everything that Shark mentioned.

Kenneth R. said...

Here's the rub: the book jacket for The Choice -- or whatever that novel was -- was not written by Nicholas Sparks. It was written by an editor at his book publisher. And probably by a frustrated fiction writer to boot. What you REALLY want to see is Nick Sparks' query to Park Literary, the first one that got him out of the slush pile, and see how THAT one was. This stuff here is the professional jacket copy written by two or three people over the course of months. Sparks probably didn't write a word, nor have any say in the matter.