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.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


The overwhelming response to my frustration Sunday night was both helpful and heartwarming. Thank you.

It's clear QueryShark archives have value and should continue.

It's clear that most writers understand the value of having their work in the archives, and the revision process available for other writers to benefit from.

With that in mind there is a change in the QueryShark submission process:

1. Every submission must include a phrase agreeing to be posted and archived.

2. The option to have your work removed is gone.

Because this is a major change in the submission agreement, ALL queries are being discarded as of this morning.

IF your query was not posted, and you wish to be considered you MUST SEND AGAIN.

You MUST use the new submission policy.

It's spelled out here.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

My patience is at zero

There have been several writers who've submitted queries to QueryShark recently, had the query posted and critiqued, only to ask to take it down shortly thereafter with NO revising.

The value of QueryShark is in the archives, everyone learning from the work of other writers.

It's also a complete waste of my time to critique a query and then have it taken down. Given I spend more than an hour, frequently several, on each entry, you can understand my patience is wearing thing for this kind of thing.

So, help me out.

Do I:

1. Remove the provision that allows writers to remove their work at will?

2. Require that the query be posed for a minimum length of time?

3. Turn off comments for the first week the query is posted?

4. Throw in the towel and let the archives serve their purpose, with no new entries?

5. Something else?

Input needed. Input received. It was VERY helpful, thank you.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

#236-revised twice FTW

Dear QueryShark:

Ariel Cordova's soon to be dead husband calls to say he loves her, he's sorry, and he doesn't think they know about her. He directs her to leave Texas, go into hiding and find the clue he tucked away in her books explaining his perilous predicament.

oh yes! yes! Yes!!!! MUCH better!

An assassin's bullet keeps him from warning her of the rogue C.I.A. operative demanding the return of four million dollars. Or the blackmailer who has stolen the digital plans for Jester, part of a missile launching system he was unwittingly designing for the spook.

Across the country in Granite Pointe, New Hampshire, when Ariel escapes a kidnapping she's forced to hire Marco Romano, security and protection specialist and notorious playboy. Rebuffing his advances will be as challenging as avoiding kidnappers and killers. In the end, she teaches Romano to be a better man while he helps her to find personal strength she wasn't aware she possessed.

The only chance of survival will be to identify and capture the blackmailer, destroy the plans for Jester, keep it from being used against American targets, and stop a murderer from adding them to his growing list of dead bodies.

At 82,300 words, KEEP AWAY is a Romance.

I left a few strings untied to allow for a sequel which I'm currently working on.

Thank you for your time and attention.

You've got all the pieces in the right place now and I think this is pretty spiffy. Let it sit a week, then pare and prune as needed but don't fuss yourself in to not sending.

Good luck!

Dear QueryShark:

Ariel Cordova's soon to be dead husband calls to say he's sorry, he doesn't think they know about her and she should leave Texas and go into hiding.

An assassin's bullet stops him from warning her of the rogue C.I.A. operative who wants his client's four million dollars back.

Those troublesome double subjects. When you have the CIA guy acting for someone else, you end up with sentences flailing from too many people.

How about this:  CIA operative who wants a four million dollar refund.

In a query, you don't have to spell out every connection. The CIA guy wants the money back for someone else it's true, but in this form, you don't have to explain that. It's enough for our purposes here to know he wants it.

Or the blackmailer who has stolen the digital plans for Jester, a navigation system for a missile launcher he was unwittingly designing for the spook and his buyers, some not so nice people with a grudge against the United States.

and you've got the same convoluted problem here too.

Across the country in Granite Pointe, New Hampshire, Ariel wants to settle in to an anonymous life, stay off the radar of her husband's killer, and avoid the charms of Marco Romano, security specialist and notorious playboy.

Can you say that sentence in one breath? If NOT then it's too long.

After a run-in with a bungling F.B.I. poser, a nervous man who knows all about jester,Jester she's forced to hire Romano for protection and investigation.  Not willing to join Romano's fan club of bimbos, she attempts to train the dog in the ways of monogamy while he digs to find the truth.

You need to be careful here. If Romano's fans are "bimbos" and he's the romantic lead...that makes OUR girl one of the bimbos.  You don't need to characterize his "fan club" as more than that. We get it.

Also why is she training him for monogamy if she doesn't want to join his fan club. You're revealing too much here. "Forced to hire" gives us the sense she doesn't want to be around him. What's missing is what changed her mind.

In her book collection hides a clue, an explanation and the location of the money.  The only chance they have at making a life together, or living at all, will be to identify and capture the blackmailer, recover and destroy the plans for Jester, and stop a killer from adding them to his growing list of dead bodies.

In her book collection hides a clue.  In this sentence awkward rhythm prevails.  I've jumped up and down endlessly about the value of putting sentences in the "right" order: subject verb object.  If you need to gussy it up after you see it in that form, do so. START with the simple. Then gild.

At 82,300 words, Keep Away is crime romance.
Ah, MUCH better title.

I'm not sure what a crime romance is. At some point we'll need to figure out if this is going to crime editors or romance editors.  I think it's romance.

I left a few strings untied to allow for a sequel which I'm currently working on.

Thank you for your time and attention.

One of the things about revising is when you do one round, it often reveals things you didn't see on the first round. Thus this is better but still not there.

Dear QueryShark:

Arial Cordova's soon to be dead husband calls to say he's sorry, he doesn't think they know about her and she should leave Texas and go into hiding.

This is a great opening. I particularly like "soon to be dead."  It puts us in the moment and creates instant tension.

Contrast that to what I see a lot of--backstory: "Arial's husband was killed in the middle of a phone call warning her..."

See the difference? 

An assassin's bullet ends his life before he can tell her of the ex-C.I.A. operative who wants his four million dollars back, or the blackmailer who has stolen the digital plans for Jester, a treasonous weapon her husband was unwittingly designing for the former spook.

Ok, here we get a little muddled.  "Treasonous weapon" isn't very clear. Because of that wonderful first line, I have confidence in the writer though, so I'd keep going.

The good thing though is that we instantly see the problem, and what's at stake.

Across the country in Granite Pointe, New Hampshire, Arial would like nothing more than to blend with the community and avoid the charms of Marco Romano, local security specialist and notorious playboy. However, a bungling F.B.I. impostor, and a kidnapper hired by an elusive stranger in the neighborhood are keeping her from settling into a new life.

Now this is interesting because the tone changes.  It's not a high stakes thriller, it's more of a down home cozy. Can you have both? Well, not really. This isn't a deal-breaker though. I'll keep reading because there's nothing here that goes splat. It's just going in a direction other than what I thought--not always a bad thing.

If Arial can't find the clue her husband said he left in her book collection and stop his killer from adding her to his growing list of dead bodies, she won't get the chance to live happily ever after. happily ever after is NOT what can be at stake for a mystery or thriller.  There has to be a real problem that has an impact on other people.  Happily ever after is what's at stake in a romance novel.

So, I'm confused, but I like the writing.  Not a deal breaker yet.

At 82,300 words, The Jester Project is crime fiction with some laughs and a little romance.

TERRIBLE title because it sounds like a thesis for an undergraduate degree at Clown College (a college I always wanted to attend in was run by Ringling Bros.--but I digress)

So, here's the rub. This isn't really crime fiction since what's at stake is romance. And there's not enough here about the romance to make me think it's a solid romance.

I left a few strings untied to allow for a sequel which I'm currently working on.

I love this line. It's funny and fresh. It makes me think I'd like the writer, that s/he'd be fun to work with.

Thank you for your time and attention.

And the writer hasn't made an crazy claims of self-importance or included pictures of his/her cat, rat or alpaca--all good things to avoid.

This is good, but not really good enough. To work it needs better stakes, a better description of the weapon (and what would happen if it got in the wrong hands) and a new title won't hurt.

 Revise, resend.