Monday, September 2, 2013

#249--revised 4x

Fourth revision

Dear Query Shark,

The words were written on a sign posted just outside Aura Jefferson’s hometown of Langston, in rural Oklahoma, and she’s spent her entire life trying to forget them:


Let's try to make this more immediate: Aura Jefferson's spent her entire life trying to forget the words on the sign just outside her hometown: “NIGGER DON’T LET THE SUN GO DOWN ON YOUR HEAD OUT HERE.”

Do you see the difference? If you start with the main character it's a stronger sentence. Stronger sentences are better.

At the risk of boring everyone with repetition, I will remind you that when I see sentences like this in a query, I KNOW I will see them in a novel.  This is the kind of self-editing you MUST be able to do. This sentence isn't wrong, but it's not strong. It's not the BEST sentence. I'm looking for the best, strongest work I can find.  I need Doberman sentences, not sheepdog sentences.

For Aura – a strong, independent black woman – forgetting is a kind of survival tactic. She left her little brother and her Grams back in Langston, moved to the city (what city?) and never looked back. Now she’s a physical therapist who helps patients recover from devastating injuries. But white folks in this corner of the world (what corner of the world?) don’t always welcome the help (Aura has heard the “N-word” more times than she cares to count). And a thin skin, no matter what the color, just doesn’t cut it in her line of work. <----good sentence="">

"Kind of" weakens the sentence. I call it girl-speak. If you watch the differences in speech patterns of men and women, you'll notice women qualify their statements MUCH more often than men do.  A lot of "my opinion" "I think" and "kind of" phrases creep in.  You'd be stunned how hard it is to coach women out of talking like that too. Don't let it creep into your writing unless you need it there to illustrate character.  I'm thinking Aura is pretty resolute. No "kind of" about it.

Then her brother Carl, a former basketball star, is murdered in a drug deal gone wrong. When she’s asked to testify in the trial of his killer, Aura meets four strangers, each of whom begins to test the necessary boundaries she has established between herself and the world.

You're losing momentum at "meets four strangers" because it's vague. Vague is Not Good.  Remember, you do NOT need to cover everything in the query. You only need to entice me to read on.  Do we need to know about the four strangers? Is it enough to know she's being tested?

Before taking that witness stand, Aura will need to forgive her little brother for embracing the thug life that got him killed … and forgive herself for abandoning him in Langston. First she’ll have to forget everything she knows about mere survival, and remember what it’s like to really live – maybe even love – again. And that will mean depending on someone other than herself.

At 99,000 words, AMERICAN PRAYER is a story about race, justice, faith and forgiveness in America’s heartland. Told from alternating points of view, the novel will appeal to fans of character-driven fiction such as Dan Chaon’s “Await Your Reply” or Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin”.

You might consider putting more in about the four alternating points of view. I assume one is Aura, one is Dean.  Consider:  The novel is told in four points of view: Aura; Dean the Choctaw-in-name-only defense investigator: POV 3 (short description); and, POV 4 (short description)

That can work if the descriptions are enticing, not just short bios.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is better in that it's more interesting. I must tell you however that seeing a novel that's 99k and has four POVs makes me very very skeptical.  You've really chomped on a big challenge. 

Coupled with the flabby sentences, this is still a pass. Calisthenics all around!
Tighten up, revise, resend.  And don't forget to look at your novel and see how much tightening you can do there too.


Third revision

Dear Query Shark,

Dean Goodnight learned to spell ambidextrous when those English-speaking teachers tied his left arm behind a chair. Southpaws weren’t allowed in the American school and neither was Dean’s first language: Choctaw. Abandoning his heritage, Dean embraced the law. Now he works for the Oklahoma City public defender’s office, trying to save convicted killers from the death penalty. Problem is, this new Choctaw defendant of his? Dean can’t find one damn redeemable thing about him.

I can see what you're trying to say here, but it's not on the page. 

I'm put off by the discrepancy of tone between "learned to spell ambidextrous" with "tied his left arm behind his chair".  Sure, I see what you're getting at but you're missing what would make this powerful. A first grade little boy has his arm tied behind the chair?  I gotta tell ya, I think my reaction would be rage. A very deep burning rage that would never ever go away.  I think I would hate teachers, and English-only teachers a lot.

( My grandmama was left-handed and despite the soft spoken gentlewoman that she was, she still sounded angry when telling us what her first grade teacher did to get her to learn to use her right hand. Mind you, this was 75 years later, and she was still angry.)

And I don't get the connection between abandoning his heritage and embracing the law.  

Some of this may require more nuance than a query letter can accommodate.  That might be the case here.

If you start here ---->Dean wants to believe that the laws make justice possible: for the good guys and the bad. But the corruption he encounters on a daily basis – police coercing confessions, district attorneys suppressing evidence, expert witnesses falsifying forensics – puts him on the losing side of an increasingly unfair fight.

we see the the conflict instantly.

The closer he gets to understanding this brutal murder, (what brutal murder?) the more Dean reconnects with his own forgotten Choctaw upbringing. During the investigation Dean becomes involved with four strangers, including the victim’s sister, Aura Jefferson. In order to save his client’s life, Dean will need to convince Aura that life in prison can represent a more fitting punishment than the death penalty.

Again, I don't see the connection between understanding the murder and reconnecting with his forgotten Choctow upbringing. 

Focus on Dean.  You're getting sidetracked with these other characters.  What does Dean want? What's keeping him from getting it?

But he might have to break the law to do it. And that could spell … well, a lot of things. And none of them are good.

"a whole lot of things, none of them good" is too nebulous to be the stakes of a novel.

At 103,000 words, AMERICAN PRAYER will appeal to fans of suspenseful, character-driven fiction such as Richard Price’s “Lush Life” or Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin”.

I've read LUSH LIFE and this doesn't sound like it at all. LUSH LIFE is set in NYC, specifically the Lower East Side, and is a very taut crime novel.  We get no sense of setting from your query, no sense of the plot, and only a hint that Dean had a pretty awful upbringing.

It's time to punch harder in this query. Get down to the core events and show us why they matter and how they are connected.  Your job here is to entice me to read the novel and you're not there yet.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Second revision

Dear QueryShark:
Mitigation investigator Dean Goodnight is the only Choctaw Indian at the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s office. His job is to find a killer’s redeemable qualities, in the hopes of convincing a jury to spare them the death penalty.
When you're introducing the reader to a book, it's best to be as simple (and enticing!) as possible.  In the first paragraph you're telling us a lot of things about Dean Goodnight:

mitigation investigator

only Choctaw Indian

public defender

It's not till you get to the second paragraph that you say something that catches our interest.  Thus, that's what you want to lead with, and then fill in the other details later (if at all).

Problem is, this new Choctaw defendant of his? Dean can’t find a thing worth saving.

Consider this:

Dean Goodnight is supposed to find redeemable qualities that will spare a convicted killer from the death penalty. Problem is, this new Choctaw defendant of his? Dean can’t find a thing worth saving.

Delving into the killer’s past, Dean discovers unsettling similarities to his own. And the closer he gets to understanding this brutal murder, the more Dean understands about his complicated Choctaw heritage. During the investigation Dean becomes increasingly involved with four strangers, including the victim’s sister, Aura Jefferson. In order to save his client, Dean will need to convince Aura that life in prison can represent a more fitting punishment than the death penalty.

First, though, he’ll need to convince himself.

At 103,000 words, AMERICAN PRAYER combines elements of historical and literary fiction to paint an intimate portrait of Oklahoma in the mid-1990s, when both the state and the country are on the cusp of radical, often violent, change. It will appeal to fans of suspenseful, character-driven fiction such as Richard Price’s “Lush Life” or Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin”.

Elements of historical fiction? I'm hard pressed to think of what those are.  Historical fiction generally means fiction set during historical times.  I'm not sure there are any elements specific to it that wouldn't also apply to any other novel.  And calling this literary fiction isn't a good idea at all.

What I'm hoping you've got here is a crime novel.  I hope that because 1) that's what I like to read; 2) crime sells a lot better than literary fiction; and, 3) cause this query letter doesn't indicate literary fiction at all.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

There's still no real sense of a compelling plot here.  All you have is that Dean Goodnight has to confront his past, and since he's a stranger to us, who cares. 
 You've gone from too much to not enough.

There's a template for getting plot on the page in the query. Find it. Use it.



 First revision
Dear Query Shark,
A killer always runs home. It’s instinct. But investigator Dean Goodnight knows most of those homes are broken beyond fixing. Dean’s the only Choctaw Indian in the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s office. So when his latest client’s crime orphans a young Choctaw boy, when his girlfriend starts pushing for a family, Dean follows his own gut: he runs.

Whoa! There's WAY too much going on here. You've got the killer running, Dean knowing, kid being orphaned, girlfriend kvetching, and Dean running.

You're trying to connect the dots in a splatter pattern here and it's not pretty.

When Olympic divers are scored, the two highest and lowest scores are tossed out, and the score is created from those remaining.  When you dive into revisions here (oh, aren't I clever with the metaphors tonight!) toss aside the things that don't relate to the matters at hand.

Leaving the orphan with a C.P.S. volunteer named Becca Porter - caring for this kid’s not in the job description - Dean throws himself into the new case, looking for any evidence that might save his client’s life. To do so he’ll need to convince the victim’s sister, Aura Jefferson, to move past the anger haunting her since the murder.

At this point I don't know who's who or what's what.  Who's important here? So far you've named or mentioned seven people. That's classic character soup. 

He has his work cut out for him. Aura’s a proud black woman, a physical therapist who doesn’t take advice … she gives it. When Aura goes into a patient’s home, the goal is to teach him how to adapt to some devastating injury. So why is recovering from her own tragedy so difficult?

What? Now I'm lost. If this query came to me for consideration, I'd stop reading right here.

Her new borderline-bigot patient sure isn’t helping. Before he was paralyzed in a car crash, Cecil Porter dreamed of playing pro basketball, just like Aura’s brother did. Maybe this is why she tolerates the old man and his brother: “Big” Ben Porter, a charismatic huckster who’s got everyone in his pocket. Maybe even the district attorney prosecuting Dean’s client.

As Dean chases down leads, as Aura wrestles with the effects of prejudice and regret, as Ben tries to repair the damage Cecil’s accident has wrought on their relationship, Ben’s wife Becca Porter (Dean’s volunteer) uncovers a link between the orphan and her own traumatic upbringing.

Can these five strangers forget their differences, come together, and give this orphaned Choctaw boy a better future? Maybe. But first, they’ll each have to stop running from the past.

At 105,000 words, AMERICAN PRAYER is my first novel. It will appeal to fans of suspenseful, character-driven fiction such as Richard Price’s “Lush Life” or Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin”.

Ok, here's the Wikepedia plot summary  for LUSH LIFE:  

On the way home from a night of drinking, three men—cafe manager Eric Cash, bartender Ike Marcus, and a friend of Marcus'—are accosted by two muggers. Marcus is shot and killed. NYPD Detective Matty Clark winds up investigating the crime, and keeping an eye on Ike's distraught father Billy, whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic. 

Cash is initially arrested for the crime, but later released when the accounts of other witnesses back up his own; his own behavior is affected as he has difficulty coping with the memory of the incident and the stresses of the police interrogation. Interwoven with the main plot are vignettes of the Lower East Side and the waves of immigrants that have come through there and lived in its tenements over the years.

There are a LOT of characters mentioned but we can keep them all straight and we know who the main guy is.  If you need to mention more than one or two characters in your query, this is the way to do it.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is not a buttoned down query. This is a ragbag of remnants.

Time to revise, restyle, and resend.

Original query
Dear Query Shark,

It’s 1994 in Oklahoma City: the Waco siege is over, the OJ Simpson trial isn’t.

When a single line appears at the top of a query it signals a log line or a hook.

This is neither. After reading the entire query the only thing this line tells me is the novel is set between April 19, 1993 and October 3, 1995. (More on this later.)

This is a classic example of why "Kill your darlings" (which begs to be a Raymond Chandler title) is good advice.  This opening line is a good sentence. It seems to glow with promise.

But, it doesn't work. It doesn't work because it doesn't illuminate the novel.  Thus it must die.

A good hook is not just an enticing sentence; it's an enticing sentence that illuminates the novel.

A young Choctaw boy named Caleb has just been orphaned by the criminal justice system, both parents jailed on separate murder and drug charges. Investigator Dean Goodnight’s job at the Public Defender’s office is to save the life of Caleb’s father at all costs. But the more Dean understands about this particular killer’s crime, the less he understands about himself - and his own Choctaw heritage.

Have you come across the phrase "character soup?"  This is getting close. Too many characters. Start with the main guy. Tell us what's at stake for him. When we see the choices he faces, it makes us care about him. Right now all you've got is set up.

Dean enlists four seemingly unrelated strangers into the investigation. There’s Aura Jefferson, the murder victim’s older sister and perhaps the angriest physical therapist in Payne County. Her borderline-bigot patient, Cecil Porter, who broke his spine in a car crash nearly fifty years ago. Cecil’s brother, “Big” Ben Porter, who’s not above bribing a few councilmen to bag the construction contract that will determine the city’s future. And Becca Porter, Ben’s wife, who discovers a link between the orphaned Choctaw boy Caleb and her own traumatic past.

And this is classic character soup. We still don't have an inkling of the plot. That's crucial in a query. You've told us who the characters are but not given us a reason to care what happens to them.

Together, these five people might just be able to offer Caleb a new kind of life. But they had better hurry. Because now it’s 1995. On April 19 a bomb is going to go off, and life will never be the same.

Again, this doesn't work. If the OKC bombing is the climax of the novel, you've got to get us interested in the people and events long before it happens. In fact, if it's the climax of the novel, it really has no place in the query. 

More on the log line at the start of the novel:  The OKC bombing occurred on 4/19/95 after Waco and before the OJ Simpson verdict, yes.  But those two events, and in fact the OKC bombing itself, are peripheral to the plot and thus should not be in a query letter.

I can hear you saying somewhat perplexedly "It's not peripheral, it's the climax of the plot - the bombing changed everything." In a novel something always happens that changes everything.  Whether it's the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the flood ravages of Superstorm Sandy, or the death of Old Yeller, something happens at the climax of a book to change the protagonist's world.

Unless the protagonist performed the world changing act (ie shot Old Yeller) the specific event is superfluous to the plot. Thus it isn't in the query.

In this case, the plot is what's at stake for the investigator if he doesn't help the kid. The plot doesn't depend on the OKC bombing; the world could change for a variety of reasons. It just happens to change this time because of the events of 4/19/95.  

The problem with using Waco and OJ and the OKC bombing here is that you're cloaking your query in buzzword events, rather than showing me what the book is about.  It's a crutch. And the interesting thing here is that it's a crutch you don't need.  You actually  have an interesting concept. You obviously can write.  What you haven't done is tell me what the book is about. That's a deal breaker in a query.

At 105,000 words, AMERICAN PRAYER is my first novel. It might appeal to fans of suspenseful, character-driven fiction such as Don DeLillo’s “Libra” or Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin”.

It might isn't compelling. It will is the phrase you want here.

LIBRA was published in 1988. No matter how wonderful, it's not a book you'll use as a comp because it's 25 years old. Comp titles should always be new titles. New means within the last two years at best, five at most. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is a great example of well-written query that doesn't work. A good query entices the reader to want more. Enticing means you tell us about the start of the book in a way that makes us want to read on.

This is all character set up, timeline and CNN headlines. 

There are LOTS of queries that fall in to this category: well-written but ineffective.

Take a look at the queries that got to YES. (There's a section on the left side of this blog with links to them.)  Watch how those queries enticed me to read more.




Unknown said...

Welcome back. Is the mailbox already full to overflowing?

Theresa Milstein said...

I can see what it's important to focus on one main character in the query, even if a manuscript is told from multiple points of view. It's hard to care as much. I assume the manuscript, especially with the word count, gets into these characters' lives. So we're supposed to care about them and the boy they're trying to save. But with the small word count in a query, there's no way to care about them all.

Then using the big events for what's at stake doesn't work because we have no sense of the personal stakes from those events.

I have a feeling if what's missing in the query is actually in the manuscript, when this query is rewritten well, it will get many requests for pages.

Unknown said...

This query is unlike most of the others in the archives. It's got problems, but a lot of enticing pieces even given those problems. We'll see how many revisions it takes to get to yes.

Chris Desson said...

Is the lawyer a time traveler or psychic to know the date of the OK bombing? Is this how he knew he had to save the father by that date?

I had to read the first two paragraphs twice to understand what the book is about. And the example books, I never heard of, Yikes!

Laura said...

Wow, this comment got long. TL;DR: this is a novel about Native Americans and the criminal justice system. You can't escape the subject of race relations. I felt that the writer needs to be more aware of how they handle that in the query.

Caleb's dad will die (I'm assuming be executed?) if Dean doesn't succeed. Dean's main conflict is doing his job and feeling conflicted for a reason that isn't explained. If his heritage is such a big conflict for him, I want to know what his heritage is, what the conflict with it is, and how it relates to Caleb's dad's case.

A couple of nitpicky things: "the orphaned Choctaw boy Caleb." 1- you've introduced the character, his culture, and his problem already, so you can just call him Caleb to keep from sounding redundant. Also, unless Caleb is a girl's name somewhere, there's no need to repeat that he's a boy. Info on how old of a boy he is, however, might be relevant.

2- He isn't literally orphaned; Dean's job is to save Caleb's dad's life.

3- I'm getting a vibe of "white savior complex." Call me a cynic, but I read that as playing up Caleb's culture and orphan status for more pity points so all the white people can save him and "offer Caleb a new kind of life." I don't know the race of your other characters, except that Dean has some kind of Choctaw heritage. But since Caleb is repeatedly identified as Choctaw and the others aren't assigned ethnicities, I'm assuming they are probably white (since white is often portrayed as the "default" while non-white characters are always identified; in fact their race is often their sole identifier). If race and culture are central to your story (and they are) you need to be aware not just of how you're handling it in your novel, but also of how you're presenting it in your query. I haven't read the book; all I have to go on is the query, so I'm going to call it like I see it. And right now what I'm seeing makes me a little uncomfortable.

Or maybe I'm just overthinking it. Did anyone else get that vibe or was it just me? It's just...meh, I feel awkward being the one raising my hand in the back of the class and asking, "Can we talk about this a sec?" The thing is, native people have a long history of having their children taken away from them and placed in institutions or with white foster families in order to "save" them. So if you construct a similar situation, you're automatically entering into dialogue with that matter how justified it might be in Caleb's situation. It's just really important to think about that...I don't know the writer's race or culture -- he could be Choctaw himself for all I know -- but especially if you are white, it is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT to be careful, educated, and aware when handling these issues. The writer seems aware of the times in the query; I guess I'd like to see more of that awareness with other things as well.

The query also takes an about-face in this paragraph when it changes from describing a book about Dean saving *Caleb's dad* and learning about the murder, to all these people saving *Caleb.* I mean, he probably wants to save Caleb's dad for Caleb's sake...or does he? I don't know. There's not enough info about what's really going on. Why does Caleb need to be helped? Does he have no extended family to take him in? Are they trying to keep him out of foster care, or what? And how is that a defense attorney's prerogative? Where is Dean in all this, if he's the main character?

I'm looking forward to seeing where this query goes.

french sojourn said...

This is a good example of walking the tightrope of query writing.

It's obvious the writer has voice and some good chops...
"perhaps the angriest physical therapist in Payne County"

But also has a deep involved story.

I would try to tell this from a single characters view. Use their voice and describe the set-up, conflict, potential sacrifices and open ended closure.

Good luck with this one, has potential.

Ellipsis Flood said...

I'm still not sure what to think of calling Caleb an orphan. Especially in the second version.

When I read "his latest client’s crime orphans a young Choctaw boy," I expect the client to be responsible for the death of Caleb's parents or something. So why, I wonder then, should Dean give a crap about saving that man's life?

Theresa Milstein said...

I have to confess I liked the first query better. If it starts about the boy, then I expect a lot to center around him or the investigation related to him. But it doesn't.

When you explained in the last book that there would be several characters, that seemed more in line with the real blurb QS just put up. The way it's written now, this woman character comes out of left field.

If you can focus on the investigator--what's at stake for him with the boy and the investigation--then maybe it can help you focus one one or 2 plot points. It's so hard to cover many aspects of a story and the # of people involved with about 250 words. Good luck!

Sarah said...

Neither query explains anything more than the basic set-up and background on your five characters. On the second draft, you just give us even more set-up instead of actual plot events.

I would suggest that you focus on the murder trial and the fate of Caleb as the key elements. This is what ties together an investigator struggling with his own Choctaw heritage, a CPS foster mother who sees in the boy a reflection of her own traumatic childhood, and the victim's sister who battles guilt and anger.

(I would omit the male Porters, because Ben's corruption and Cecil's racism don't have a direct connection to the crime.)

As they prepare for the trial, all three struggle with questions of justice, mercy, etc. Together, they may have the power to give Caleb a better life - if they can come to terms with their own pasts.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

A few things in the revised version:

1. So when his latest client’s crime orphans a young Choctaw boy,

This makes is sound like the murder victim was one or both of the boy's parents.

2. To do so he’ll need to convince the victim’s sister, Aura Jefferson

Who is described one line later as a proud black woman. Okay, that intimates that the victim was also black. So, is the boy bi-racial black/Choctaw with the undertones that elicits? Where is the boy's other parent?

3. Leaving the orphan with a C.P.S. volunteer named Becca Porter - caring for this kid’s not in the job description

Well, duh, public defenders don't get to "keep" kids. The boy would have never been in his care for a minute. He would have been turned over to the state by the police and then there might have been a giant ICWA battle depending on which parent was Choctaw.

Or none of that may have been your point, but it was so convoluted that that is where my attention wandered off to.

Leave out the Potters completely. What are Deans fears, choices, and dilemmas. Does he have to combat a corrupt system while reconciling himself with his heritage? Does he have the pressure of a high voltage trial while his girlfriend is yammering at him for a commitment? Does he see something in an orphan boy that reminds him of himself? Why doesn't the court ever bring in cake donuts, I hate glazed . . .?

Too much mash, not enough mish. I actually like the first version better. Keep the query to Dean and why I care enough about him and his problems to commit to 105K words.

(Because I like the premise)


Raquel said...

I think you've done a couple of good things in this revision that you lacked earlier:

"Delving into the killer’s past, Dean discovers unsettling similarities to his own...." This whole paragraph is great with setting up the stakes. We see his personal connection to this case, which was lacking before. However, I don't know enough about HIM to want him to succeed as a lawyer OR in general.

Perhaps, in order to get your audience to care for Dean, you have to bring up his stakes earlier on in the query. Or maybe you just need MORE of him, so that way we feel for him. Either way, I think the Shark is right (when isn't she?) in that you need something more to reel us in.

"First, though, he’ll need to convince himself." I just really love this line. It doesn't read as literary fiction, though.

Bravo on eliminating the character soup from previous drafts. I wasn't sure how you were going to do it, but you did!

This draft is quite impressive compared to the first draft. I'm amazed at the number of revisions you've completed in such a short time.

Sara J. Henry said...

Sometimes when it seems impossible to boil your novel down into a coherent, appealing query letter - it means there's too much going on in the book.

Crystal Charee said...

You're getting closer, buddy. Don't lose heart.

David Eric Tomlinson said...

... three years later - a Query Shark success story!

Using a combination of the Dean Goodnight query letter and a tighter version of the Aura Jefferson query, I ended up A/B testing these queries and eventually began sending out full manuscripts to agents in late 2013/early 2014. I landed my agent, Eleanor Jackson, with the Aura Jefferson query.

Eleanor had me rewrite the novel one more time. We deleted about a dozen scenes, reworked structure, added a half dozen more, and changed the title to a phrase used in the novel: THE MIDNIGHT MAN.

This summer, it sold to editor Benjamin LeRoy at Tyrus Books. We've just approved the cover art, finished final copy edits to the galley, and the book has now gone to press. You can watch a book trailer and read what others have to say about the manuscript on my web site.

THE MIDNIGHT MAN ships in December and will be available in bookstores by January 1, 2017.

Thanks so much Janet for your help with this query! My debut novel would never have made it this far without your expert tutelage. You're the jiu-jitsu master of the query.

- David Eric Tomlinson