Monday, October 14, 2013

#251-Revised once


Dear Query Shark,

Dr. Richard Hamilton, head of Physics at Livermore National Lab, is faced with the most difficult decision of his life. The machine he spent his whole career creating in secret, works. It can actually receive a message from the future. The problem is, ‘turn the machine off,’ was not the kind of message he was prepared for.

Sometimes holding on too long costs more than you’re willing to pay.

The Second Dimension is a complete 89,700 word thriller similar to the pace of Jeffery Deaver and the suspense of Preston/Child. I have been published in many periodicals and have extensive experience in theatre. This is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

 This works for me. I'm not sure if it would work for another agent but I like it a lot.  I like it because it sets up a human dilemma: you're told to do something without knowing why. We can intuit that the stakes are high. There's exquisite tension in that.

The first pages for this novel need to be superlative. There's absolutely no room for lackadaisical prose, misused words, flat pacing or opening with a phone call, weather or driving.  You've got my attention for about two more minutes.

Dear Query Shark,
Dr. Richard Hamilton, head of Physics at Livermore National Lab, is faced with the most difficult decision of his life.  The machine he spent his whole career creating in secret, works. It can actually receive a message from the future. But it’s more than a miraculous wonder of science, its solace from a childhood nightmare veiled in his father’s blood. The problem is, ‘turn the machine off,’ was not the kind of message he was prepared for.  

This is one of the most enticing opening paragraphs I've seen in a while. Why does it work?
It sets up the situation and the problem very elegantly: the machine works is both the situation and the problem.

I'm enticed to read on.  That's the one thing a query must do.

Frankly, if this were the ONLY paragraph in the query, I'd read pages, and if they were good, I'd ask for the full manuscript. I’m always on the lookout for someone who can write the kind of books Patrick Lee does.

Captain Josh McGregor, fresh from the fly-ridden dust of Afghanistan, is on his way back home to Livermore. He returns as part of a military task force escorting a revolutionary new weapon to be tested at the lab. A non-lethal assignment and a chance to rekindle his romance with Richard’s daughter, Katie, is just what he needs to ease his PTSD. The EPA building exploding with ‘Anarchy for Christ’ crudely scrawled on its side, was not the welcome home he needed.

And this is the biggest splat you can have in a query. You've gone from saying enough to saying too much.  

This is too much because it introduces another protagonist who is a soldier returning from Afghanistan with PTSD.  Without doubting for a second that PTSD is a very real problem for a significant number of people who have been deployed in combat (or other people who've survived violent situations) it's often a cliché in novels.   It's often a lazy way to write a problem for a soldier.

Unless PTSD contributes significantly to the plot, leave it out of the query.

This is the answer to how do you know if you've written too much: you've written too much if the details aren't essential to the plot.

What more do you need to know than the machine itself is the problem?  Not much.
Richard’s world is crumbling. The new project is a pressure cooker threatening to devastate his career. A group of armed religious fanatics surround his lab, intent on ending his interference with God’s will. A meticulous assassin with an appetite for his victim’s tongues prowls the campus and Richard’s manipulation of time may be the cause. To disprove it, he must set a trap. He waits alone in a dank testing bay to find out if it’s all just a plot against him or if he needs to sacrifice his greatest creation.

And this is again too much detail.  It's absolutely not enticing to find out there are armed religious fanatics (one dimensional cliches) or meticulous assassins (also cliché) and we already know that the problem is the machine and he's going to have to contemplate destroying it.

Think of how a comedian would make a scary situation hilarious: "Want some candy, little girl?" the stranger asks.  The comedian changes it to "Want some little round green candy with dextrose, fructose and artificial colors, little girl?"
Too much detail kills the enticement.
Too much detail gives the reader a chance to think "oh hell no I don't want to read about religious fanatics" when, if you get the reader into the actual novel they're much more willing to read along.
The Second Dimension is a complete 89,700 word thriller similar to the pace of Jeffery Deaver and the suspense of Preston/Child. This is my first novel.

You could include this paragraph with the first one, too. 
Thank you for your time and consideration.

I think it's almost impossible to know that the one paragraph is enough.  I do think however that if you follow the template outlined in several other QueryShark entries you'll have a better chance of focusing only on the plot points that matter and leaving out the things that don't.


And you might read Patrick Lee's Breach trilogy just to see if that's a comp as well. 


french sojourn said...

Yeah, the second I read ‘turn the machine off,’ my mind flipped to Deep Sky (Patrick Lee's 3/3).
That line had me as well...short concise and I loved the impending tone in it.

All stories are a fabric, but the main thread ties it all together...use the voice of your first paragraph and continue to get the rope around the readers neck.

Good luck.

BP said...

Good writing, interesting premise! The back story, agreed is too much. I wonder if even such strong writing/plot would be able to save the story ("keep us along for the ride") in book format, though. It seems like the premise, not the manuscript...yet, is more enticing to me. Thanks for sharing!

nightsmusic said...

The thing with Preston/Child is, they never lose sight of Pendergast. If he's not in the scene 'physically' as it were, he's there in spirit in some way. Another character refers to him, something quirky calls the readers attention back to who the ONLY protagonist in the stories is. There are peripheral characters, but Pendergast it first and foremost.

The first paragraph is the interesting story. The PTSD isn't so much, not that I'm discounting PTSD. I have a cousin who still suffers greatly from his time in Vietnam. I want to read about the first. The second, not so much.

This query as it's written reads like two separate stories. You need to pick one story (preferably the first paragraph which is great!) and stick with that. But then I have to wonder, if the query reads like two separate stories, does the novel as well?

J.H. Moncrieff said...

That opening line gave me chills! I totally want to read the book now.

But I agree, too much detail later on really bogs your query down. You've received some great advice. Good luck!

Shawna said...

I find it odd that the title is The Second Dimension. Given that it appears to be based around a kind of time travel (or communication, at least), and time is the fourth dimension, I'd expect the title to be The Fourth Dimension.

I agree, the first paragraph made me want to read the book. The rest didn't. (Especially the 'religious fanatics'. As you say, cliche. And I wonder how many people who write those in realize just how huge a percentage of their potential readership they're risking offending for no good reason.

Theresa Milstein said...

I agree with everyone else that the first paragraph is solid and the second needs to go. Make that third paragraph vague and it will work. There are people bent on stopping it. Enough said.

I would take out the "This is my first novel." That can't ever help a writer, can it? Let the agent read the merits of your query and decide about your novel's potential. I would think adding a line like that would make an agent not want to take a chance on a new writer.

GSMarlene said...

Oh, this reminds me of Thrice Upon a Time by James P. Hogan, a book I bought just because the cover was done by Rowena and then discovered a wonderful world a awesome sci-fi. I'd love to read this book - good luck getting this query nailed!

LynnRodz said...

Okay, I guess I'm just repeating what everyone else said, but that first paragraph made me sit up and say, "Damn, I want to read this book!" It's true that the rest of the query made me want to read it less and less, but you have a great idea here. Good luck, I look forward to seeing the revisions and reading your story one day!

Standback said...

I'm a little bit fascinated by SF queries - they've got a lot of work to do in very little space.

The first paragraph, which our Glorious Sharkiness liked so much, could practically stand on its own as a miniature story. It has a set-up and it has a follow-through. BAM. Done.

As an SF reader, though, if this tiny mini-story is the setup for a complete novel, I do need a lot more information. Because unless Richard says "OK," turns it off and leaves well enough alone, it's clear that Something Unpleasant Is Going To Happen. And that Something is presumably going to be what the book is actually about. It's not enough to explain that Something Bad Will Happen (even though you did so in a very cool way!); you want to give a fair sense of what tone and direction the bulk of the novel take!

Out of the same paragraph, you could be touting a novel about dealing with cryptic, ominous prophecies from the future, perhaps trying to solve one's problems with the device - while only making things worse. OR, the device could be the target of a dozen powerful governments, all of whom want to seize it and its power for themselves. These are two awfully different novels!

I think this information is exactly what you were trying to provide with what Her Toothsomeness has written off as unnecessary detail. But then, here's what I'm getting from this description: Lots of people are causing trouble for Richard, in vague and/or stereotypical ways. Also there's some plot thread about McGregor who doesn't like things blowing up, but apparently some things are? All in all, it sounds like the machine you set up in the premise is mostly serving as a McGuffin; it hardly makes its presence felt throughout the rest of the query, and instead it sounds like the novel is about a hodge-podge of different threats and problems springing up with no clear plot or character thread to follow.

In other words, as an SF reader, and treating this as in-some-way-shape-or-manner an SF-ish novel, I disagree with Query Shark's analysis here. I don't think you've got unnecessary detail; I think you're trying, but having difficulty, explaining what the book's actually about in an enticing manner. You've got an absolutely terrific opening hook - that'll serve you well both on the query, and as an actual hook to get readers interested in the book. But you haven't yet convinced me that you've got anything beyond that.

I see that you're describing your work as a thriller, which (perhaps?) gives you some leeway here - "Lots of bad people want to kill Our Hero and also things are blowing up" is a clearer basis for a thriller novel than it is for an SF novel. However, (A) thrillers still need great queries - look over your query again, and consider: where is the part I should expect the story to be thrilling and suspenseful? It's awfully hard to pin down here. And (B), with such a strong SF element as a temporal radio, you're leaning heavily into SF, however you choose to label yourself.

Lots of luck!

Marian Perera said...

I loved the first paragraph. It reminded me of The Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits and I had to find out more.

The second paragraph threw me, though, because there were just so many new details. There was the soldier, Katie, another machine (?), two acronyms to remember (I scrolled back up to see if Richard was working for the EPA) and so on. I was eagerly waiting to find out what Richard did after he received that message. It was a wonderful start - hope the rest of the query, revised, lives up to that.

Laura said...

I like the first paragraph, but I didn't understand why the machine needs to be turned off -- what will happen otherwise?

Also, I agree completely with the PTSD thing and I want to add another note. "A chance to rekindle his romance with Richard's daughter, Kate, is just what he needs to ease his PTSD" is kind of...offensive. Therapy helps with PTSD. Saying that jumping into a romance can cure your PTSD underestimates just how much it can affect your life, how difficult it can be to overcome, and how the recovery process works.

Also, it is really unfair to Katie; as a partner, she can provide support and love, but it's not her job to "fix" him. That's all she exists to do, though, which is also cliche. I read scenes where the couple has a good cry and cuddle and the PTSD just...goes away. No. It also makes me dislike Josh because the way this is written, he sounds like he came back, talked to Katie, and said, "Hi, ex, I'm really messed up now. Please take me back, feel sorry for me, and fix me." It makes him sound rather selfish.

If PTSD is going to feature in your novel, please present it in a well-informed, sensitive manner. I recommend the blog Dangerous Jam by Rachel Manija and her 3 essays on the subject as a starting point. She is someone recovering from PTSD who writes knowing that writers want to know what it is like.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

When I read the first paragraph, I not only thought "Patrick Lee," but also, "You must not marry Q." Nothing like a good time travel paradox.

Agreed on the second paragraph and PTSD isn't something that can be "eased" by a dimpled smile. Total deep backstory that will influence the character's choices, but not essential to the plot.

Now, I happen to like a nice ravening frothing group of religious fanatics as bad guys, but, hey, that's just me. Seriously, it gives it a biblical conspiracy tang that I just can't resist.

I hope this tale is as good as it sounds and that we will be seeing it on the shelves. Query is almost there and this sounds like one of those "less is more" situations.


Anonymous said...

I know this latest revision (revised once) is super short, but I can't help but think that the first paragraph still has a lot of stuff in there that doesn't really say anything. For example, the first sentence.

Dr. Richard Hamilton, head of Physics at Livermore National Lab, is faced with the most difficult decision of his life.

Does the agent need to read this?

Why not just put:

The machine Richard Hamilton created can receive messages from the future. The problem is, ‘turn off the machine,’ was not the kind of message he expected.

It's simple, and gets rid of all the extraneous info.

french sojourn said...

I like the taut paragraph, but I'm not sure that "Sometimes holding on too long costs more than you’re willing to pay." nails it.

Seems nebulous, isn't there another sentence from the future that gives him a clue?...and therefore the reader as well.

Perspective is a gift of time, seems there could be second short kicker to end it with and further push the reader off the edge.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

It's great as far as it goes... but for me that isn't quite far enough yet. I'd really like to be given more of an idea of what's happening, which would provide a bit more energy and momentum - the kicker over the edge, as French Sojourn puts it.

What does float my boat is the neat turnabout in the line where the main character has spent his whole career (nice distinction) building this machine, in secrecy... and...

just at the point where we're primed that it's a failure and therein lies the conflict, we learn that it works. And THAT'S the problem. Nice one.

Steve Stubbs said...

This time I have to register a different opinion. The premise is extremely clever. But the simple message to “turn the machine off” would turn me off if I were an agent. There is just no menace there. I can think of a million reasons to turn the machine off that do not a story make. I would need more than that to want to read the full. Try this: the machine operator is not only working to create a machine to communicate with someone from the future, but the person in the future tells him that a specific disaster is approaching. The future person’s motive is that from his or her perspective it is too late, but the recipient of the messages still has time to avert the disaster. The recipient person knows nothing of this at the beginning of the story and merely wants to know if such communication is possible. So to establish cred, the future person sends a series of messages predicting stock prices, incidents in the news, and maybe an auto accident, none of which can be foreseen and all of which happen. Once cred is established, the future person starts directing the present person what to do to save the world (or his 401(k), depending on how big the threat is.) The present person then follows the instructions, the usual mishaps and screwups occur, and the tension builds as Whatever Is Going To Happen is kept from happening. Finally, as time goes on he catches up with the time at which the future person was sending the messages, and the future person is a future version of himself. Hethen realizes that had he not followed the instructions sent by his future self, his future self would have ceased to exist and the communications would have been cut of without him knowing why.

With a plot like that I might look at the first five pages if they were included, and if they really sing, well of course I would ask the author if an eight figure advance paid from my personal bank account in anticipation of getting more from a publisher later would be sufficient incentive to sign a contract, Good luck.

Theresa Milstein said...

I have to agree with the above. I like Chris's suggestion to tighten the beginning. I'd want a little more to go on before I'd pick up this book and read it. I thought an agent would too.

A time machine could have very scary ramifications for the world as we know it. The protagonist should recognize this. And I would think many groups would be interested on getting their hands on the technology or destroying the plans/machine. While we don't need a laundry list of groups, some "what's at stake" would be nice.

LynnRodz said...

I have to agree with Steve, this revision is not enough. You need to entice us more about the machine. Why must it be turned off? What possible consequences will happen if it isn't? And, of course, we know that it won't be! No, you're not going to give away the whole plot, but more is needed to whet our appetite so that we not only want to buy the book, we have to buy the book! Good luck!

fposte said...

I like the single paragraph query. What I'm itching to do, though, is swap the key sentence around so it ends with "turn the machine off" and maximizes its impact.