Tuesday, August 27, 2013

#248-revised twice

Dear QueryShark,

The tiniest spark can send Afghanistan and Pakistan to war. Steven Frisk’s job is to make sure that doesn’t happen. Ali Hassan Ashwari is doing everything in his power to ensure it does.

A CLOUD IN THE DESERT is a 61,000 word Espionage/Action novel. The story follows Steven Frisk, a CIA Operations Officer, as he sets about to prevent what started as a border skirmish from escalating into a full scale war.

"sets about to prevent what started"--great snakes! Parse that out, I dare you.  When you look at or, better yet, when you read it out loud you should hear that this is not smooth writing. He must prevent a border skirmish from escalating into full-scale war.  See the difference?

When I see this in a query, I don't care how wonderful or thrilling the concept may be. This is Not Good Writing, and I know I'll see it in the novel.  And lest I hear snorts of derision from the assembled chums, let me assure you  I know every published novel is not Great Writing, far from it. But most high octane thrillers (which this purports to be) have a forward momentum and energy that keeps the reader turning pages. This kind of inverted syntax just slows us down. One of these days I'm going to assign a minion the task of counting how many times I've said "simple writing is best" and then make all of you write it that many times on the blackboard.

Behind the scenes, a A corporate conglomerate is manipulating the events to help boost their profits through sales to both sides. Will Steven be able to unravel the web of deception that has been laid out before him in time to prevent a nuclear war? Will his former protégé succeed in thwarting him as he tries to set the world back to neutral? Set in contemporary times, A CLOUD IN THE DESERT poses the “what if” questions associated with America’s involvement with both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Avoid those rhetorical plot questions. Be specific about what the corporate ne'er do wells are plotting. Selling arms to both sides is business as usual, as is contributing to both candidates in an election. It's legal too. What are they doing that's evil?

Professionally, I am an attorney. In my free time I am an amateur military historian, with a focus on World War II and recent Middle Eastern conflicts.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

There's a recipe for getting plot on the page in a query letter. I know it's there: I wrote it. More than once.  If you read the archives, you'll find it.  

Find it.
Use it.

First revision
Dear Query Shark,

(A) The tiniest spark can send Afghanistan and Pakistan to war. Steven Frisk’s job is to make sure that doesn’t happen. Ali Hassan Ashwari, a fellow Operations Officer with the CIA, has let himself become controlled by the Invictus Corporation and is doing everything in his power to ensure the war does happen.

A query needs to be nimble.  When you look at that paragraph, what can come out and still give the reader enough info?

For starters, do we need to know Ali is a fellow operations officer? Or that he's with the CIA? Or that he's controlled by Invictus corporation?

Well, try this and see:

(B) The tiniest spark can send Afghanistan and Pakistan to war. Steven Frisk’s job is to make sure that doesn’t happen. Ali Hassan Ashwari  is doing everything in his power to ensure it does.

Which paragraph, A or B, entices you to read more?

My vote is B. It makes us wonder what will happen next and entices us to read on and find out.

The trick for writing a query is almost always leaving things OUT.  Over explaining, too much exposition, too many characters--all those load a query down and make it plod rather than elegantly leap from point to point.

Here's a visual reminder. You want to be Kari Dell (top) not Lee Marvin (bottom)**

A CLOUD IN THE DESERT is a fast-paced, 61,000 word Espionage/Action novel. It is set in contemporary times with recognizable historical events to help create a sense of realism. I have drawn upon my own experiences with most of the locations to give the world of Mr. Frisk a rich and realistic feel.

This is telling not showing. Don't do that. There's nothing about the plot here or what's at stake. You have to have that in a query.

Professionally, I am an attorney. In my free time I am an amateur Mmilitary Hhistorian, with a focus on World War II and recent Middle Eastern Cconflicts.
Yes, I nitpick on queries. These nits tell me how meticulous you are (or are NOT.)  Conflicts isn't a proper noun, thus it is NOT capitalized here. Neither is military historian.  You absolutely have to know this.  If you don't, or are not confident (it's not a character flaw,) hire a copyeditor.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

You need a plot.
And some paring.

Let it sit for a week.

**although in fairness, when Lee Marvin won an Oscar for this role in Cat Ballou, 
he did say there was a horse in Wyoming that deserved half of it.

Initial query

Dear Query Shark,

A flash-point exists between Afghanistan and Pakistan and only the tiniest spark will send these two countries into war with each other, and Operations Officer Steven Frisk, a Analyst and part-time Field Operative with the Central Intelligence Agency’s National Clandestine Service has been called upon to mitigate this as best he can. Steven must contend with a fellow Operations Officer who has inadvertently gone rogue and is controlled by a global mega-corporation looking to expand its profit and gain a larger footprint as a multifaceted defense contractor. Steven Frisk will be called upon to stop the war, and above all stop the corporation from causing more death in a nuclear war.

The first sentence of this query has 52 words and thus fails the "can you say it out loud in one breath" test.  The reason for that test is that it helps you write a sentence that is taut rather than flabby. Taut is enticing. Flabby is not. (Generally of course)

Second, you're repeating yourself but you don't realize it: "A flash point exists" and "only the tiniest spark will send" are essentially the same thing.

Thus: The tiniest spark can send Afghanistan and Pakistan to war.

You also don't need your main character's entire CV in the intro. Just by  his placement in the first paragraph, your reader assumes he's important, assumes he has something to do with the situation you're setting up.

USE the intuitive leaps your reader will make to pare your query letter down to enticing essentials.

Thus: The tiniest spark can send Afghanistan and Pakistan to war. Steven Frisk's job is to make sure that doesn't happen.

20 words. Instead of 52. 

Then do the same thing for the antagonist. Name him, tell us what he wants and why.

If you can do that in around 20 words, you'll have a nice taut opening.

A CLOUD IN THE DESERT introduces the character of Steven Frisk in a fast-paced, 57,000 word mainstream Espionage/Action novel, the first of a potential series. It follows him as he vies with a fellow Operations Officer, Ali Hasan Ashwari, who has been duped by a corporation into starting not only a conventional war between Pakistan and Afghanistan, both US allies, but also to try to turn it nuclear. You will follow Steven through the deserts of the Middle East, the mountains of Afghanistan, and urban settings such as Islamabad, Pakistan and London. The novel is generally set in a contemporary time with recognizable references to historical occurrences to give the plot a sense of realism. Cities have been researched and in some cases been visited to paint an accurate picture of the surroundings provided in this novel.

This is all filler, and duplicates what you've said in the first paragraph.  When I see that in a query, I know I'll see it in a manuscript.  The query doesn't just tell me what the book is about.  It tells me if you know how to write. (Well, it really tells me if you know how to revise. Everyone writes like this on the initial draft. It's recognizing it, revising and polishing that makes the difference)

I'm also VERY leery of any novel clocking in at 57K.  That's VERY short.  I sincerely doubt much world building goes on in a 57K novel. I know for an ironclad fact there's no subplot with that
word count.

I am an attorney with a background in political science who has travelled extensively. Most of my writing to date has been in a professional capacity, including two published articles on Science-Based Medicine, which is an online medical blog. My articles were entitled “This” and “That”. I have also contributed to collaboration projects within the Pharmaceutical industry as well as THE OTHER , a science-fiction compendium published by Them, where I contributed technical advice on the future of medical science. In my free time I am an amateur Military Historian, with a special focus on World War II and recent Middle Eastern Conflicts.

Aha! Attorneys have intuitive writing beaten out of them in law school with a stick.  Good legal writing covers all the bases.  Good fiction writing leaps elegantly from point to point and lets the reader see the base without actually touching it.

Good legal writing is chess. Good fiction writing is three dimensional chess.

I wish to thank you for the time you took to read this.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Pare down.


You should expect at least two more revisions after this one.  Once you do the major paring and refocusing you'll see some of the other problems.

Are you sure you read the archives?



John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

"Only the tiniest spark will set it off" means that a big spark won't. "Even the tiniest spark ..."

Melissa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Melissa Clare Wright said...

I'd also suggest the author think about the veracity of this situation. I work with a nonprofit involved in Afghanistan (my credentials, such as they are, for saying this): there is NO WAY Afghanistan could or would take on a war with Pakistan. It's too outgunned, and there are sociopolitical reasons that make it unlikely as well.

Also, why would a company want a war to go nuclear? Seems like it would be bad for everyone.

Maybe instead they're trying to destabilize a particular region so they can chase everyone out and seize the natural resources?

Maybe the plot somehow works in the book, and it's just not coming through here, but I'd think believability as well as good writing has to show at the query stage.

Ellipsis Flood said...

From the query, I get the feeling that the author has the same problem I struggled with for a long time: Trying to fit as much information into as few words as possible.

Somehow, you believe this to make your writing taut, but you end up with run-on sentences that confuse the reader more than they convey things. Also, the word count suffers from it.

french sojourn said...

Good legal writing is chess. Good fiction writing is three dimensional chess.

Wow, just Wow!

Queen shark to bishop's 3; level 2.

Mellissa Claire Wright: concur, totally outgunned. And nuclear is a no win all around. Even military contractors wouldn't make payroll.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

This query is badly in need of the Shoe Test! - http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.ie/search/label/writing - scroll to Tuesday, August 13, 2013, e.g.

There's no point in saying these *two* countries, when you've just specified a pair; or *the character of* Steven Frisk, when the fact that he's a character is self-evident; or set in *a contemporary* time, which is somewhat tautological; or provided *in this novel* - where else would it be provided?

"a fast-paced, 57,000 word mainstream Espionage/Action novel"

My eye kept focusing on "word mainstream" which made me envision words tumbling out in a flood - not what you want in a query! Shark is right (now there's a surprise): The text is much too dense. The tale itself sounds promising, if you can tame the jungle of verbiage. But so much needs pruning that I share everyone's worry about the already-sparse count. Do make sure these faults aren't replicated in the actual book. Its prose should be as lean and muscular and energy-efficient as Steven himself undoubtedly is. This requires image and motion and a clear narrative voice.

You probably also need a subplot or two. Can you perhaps introduce an inner battle or journey which Steven must struggle with, maybe paralleling the outer ones and resonating with the theme? Or some internal foes (such as PTSD or guilt?) to mirror/contrast the physical ones, and give us a better sense of this character as an individual.

The designation "mainstream Espionage/Action novel" is over-descriptive to my ear. I think you should choose whichever commercially recognisable word or phrase best describes the genre (though I'm not clear myself on the finer distinctions between some of those classifications). In writers.net Gary Kessler says:

"As a retired CIA officer, I'll note that espionage gives its own spin to this [category]. Indiana Jones is definitely action/adventure - the action overshadows the plot. Espionage/spying brings thriller into consideration, though."

So maybe something like:

CLOUD IN THE DESERT is a XX,000-word action/adventure thriller(?), the first of a potential series introducing CIA operative Steven Frisk. We follow him through the deserts and mountains of the contemporary Middle East, and urban settings from Islamabad to London.

Having said all that, this is a story loaded with exciting possibilities, which I would like to read. I look forward to watching Steven and his escapades take shape in the revisions.

Finally - though it's not relevant here - congrats on SBM, which I follow. You're contributing to a very valuable service, and it's one of those things which make the internet a better place.

Unknown said...

"I know for an ironclad fact there's no subplot with that word count."

Really? What does word count have to do with craft in weaving a subplot into the main story line? My guess is you are saying this is what most agents/publishers will see as flags.

Laura said...

There was a lot in this query that was vague, even inconsistent. I honestly think that if the writer overcomes their apparent fear of short sentences, it will be a lot better at least for a start.

One thing that really stuck out to me was, "Operations Officer who has inadvertently gone rogue." How does someone go rogue by accident? Either you go rogue or you don't. Sounds like the character is being manipulated by this company, in which case he technically isn't going rogue. "Controlled" is rather vague. Choosing a more specific verb will give a better sense of what's at stake. Is he being blackmailed? Bribed? Used? Manipulated? I know he's the antagonist, not the MC, but the other antagonist in the query is this faceless corporation that doesn't even have a name. These two guys are pitted against each other, so I want to see them both. Who knows? Maybe telling us more about the antag will tell us more about Steven -- like what he's up against.

Also, "a Analyst" should be "an" Analyst.

"causing more death in a nuclear war" makes it sound like the nuclear war is already going on. At the beginning of your query, you say that "the tiniest spark will send these two countries into war". So, they aren't at war. So how can the corporation cause "more death"? What death is being caused now? Is it also caused by the corporation?

Someone suggested a genre name. "Espionage thriller" or "spy thriller" might be what you want.

Unknown said...

I would look at setting the potential war between Pakistan and India - we all can understand that. Also, especially along the AF-PAK boarder most of the tribes don't even realized when they're in one nation or the other. It would be really hard to incite them to war against their relatives.

I'm also a little concerned about the phrase "inadvertently gone rogue". Seems like if you go rogue, you mean to. Was Ali tricked? If so, by whom? If he was tricked he didn't go rogue.

I think you have a good plot here.

Best of luck on the re-writes!

Theresa Milstein said...

This isn't a genre I normally read. I'd like to see more what the protagonist does to combat the threat.

The long first sentence reminded me of one of those pitch contests. Tell your manuscript in 50 words or less in one sentence type of deals. They're really hard to write.

Good luck with the query rewrite. If it means a manuscript rewrite too, I can relate. I tend to write spare drafts and have to fill in details in subsequent drafts.

Theresa Milstein said...

Adult word counts and debates on whether or not there are subplots always baffle me. I write middle grade and YA. 57k is a high word count for many middle grades, yet they can be beautifully layered.

Laura said...

@Theresa Milstein -- the word count doubts weren't just about subplot, but about world-building. If "You will follow Steven through the deserts of the Middle East, the mountains of Afganistan, and urban settings in Islamabad, Pakistan and London," then this is a novel that covers a lot of ground, shall we say. The writer also said he researched and even visited the cities, so it seems like they're a major part of the book. The writer tries to sell it as this sweeping novel that gives us an expansive tour of the world as we follow Steven on an epic journey, yet I am wondering along with the Shark how a WC of <60k can do that justice -- and still explain the complex political situation, give us some cool spy action, and develop the characters of Steven and Ali. That worries me more than the subplot question.

A question I really want this query to answer is, why is Steven "called upon"? I know it's his job, but giving a more personal reason -- he's the best there is, he's friends with Ali, or something -- would make the character (and the query) more interesting.

Jewels said...

When I think of fast paced writing, the sentence structure tends to mirror that. For example, short sentences work well in actions scenes because the reader can read short sentences faster than shorter sentences. The sentences in this query were long and dragged making the query seem slower than it could have been. I think the query should match the pace of the book to demonstrate that the book will also be fast paced and not lag like the query.

James W. Ziskin said...

I agree with Molly and Melissa. Very confused by an Afghan-Pakistani conflict. I spent three years in India. That's where Pakistan aims its animus. I also tripped over 57K word count for a thriller. Probably 30-40K too short.

Theresa Milstein said...

Laura W, good points. Thanks!

Terri Lynn Coop said...

I would like to invite the writer to The Killzone blog:


It is a group of mystery and thriller writers who are generous with their time and craft.

This is either a political thriller or a techno-thriller depending on whether it is more character driven or hardware driven (is it more Vince Flynn or Tom Clancy).

For that it is too short and likely lacks the political and betrayal subplots that are the meat and taters of this type of book.

I highly recommend the Jonathan Grave series by John Gilstrap for setting up a lone hero character with a colorful inner and personal life that acts as a backdrop for his international feats of derring-do.

And, yes, we lawyers do have a tendency to overwrite. We are also often far too linear. I have three trunkers to prove that point. It took that long to beat it out of me. But, I am your target audience, I eat these for breakfast. I hope you revise, I look forward to it.


Theresa Milstein said...

This query is so short. After QS's suggestion on how to tighten the first part, I suggest describing the MC, so readers can relate to him. I also recommend giving us more about the stakes and how they ring personally to him.

Theresa Milstein said...

After reading this newest version, I think my previous comments apply. We still need more specifics about the stakes and the MC.