Sunday, December 8, 2013

#252-the first post under the new system-revised 3x

Revision #3

Dear Query Shark,

Dee Dee Welles wants to remember the worst day of her life. As it is, with no memory of the plague that decimated the population and the landscape years before, she fears she will always be an outsider among the other survivors at the Farm.

Why does she want to remember the worst day of her life? I've had some bad days (who among us hasn't?) and I've spent considerable time building defenses against EVER remembering them.

This could be a powerful opening IF you deliver the answer to the question and it's something that twists our expectations. As it is, it doesn't make much sense to me so I'm puzzled..and that is Not Good.

So when her estranged sister Mercy reaches out to her, letting her in on a secret project that promises “life the way it used to be”, Dee Dee hopes it might be a way to find some connection to the past.  Unfortunately, she never gets the chance—an accident in the project reanimates the flesh-mutating plague, putting the Farm on lockdown. The measures taken to keep the contagion out of the settlement now keep it in, transforming the Farm from secure fortress to death-trap. In an attempt to escape, Dee Dee and her comrades go underground to avoid not only the infected, but the deadly rat-maze of the settlement's streets.

This paragraph is built on the expectation that we know why "life the way it used to be" is something good. But we don't.  And it seems to me that the first place the story gets interesting is when the Farm goes on lockdown, and they want to escape. It's the first place "what does Dee Dee want and what's keeping her from getting it" are clear.

In the grim days that follow, Dee Dee becomes aware that once to often, she is the first one pushed out of the line of fire.  Her suspicions are well founded.  She doesn't know it, but she is more than just an ordinary girl.  Dee Dee is a Carrier—a human hard-drive. The parts of her brain that once contained her memories now store terabytes of vital information, the data safely stored in a mobile host with an instinct for survival.

Ok, so you've finally gotten to the heart of the story. (I'm VERY afraid of how long it takes to get to this in the book.)  What Dee Dee doesn't know about herself is what's keeping her from remembering anything.  Thus, this info needs to be in the very first paragraph.

If this reveal is anywhere past page 50 in the book, you've probably got too much backstory. Dee Dee doesn't need to know it, but the reader does.  (That's a great way to build tension in a novel as well)

No one has ever had to access a Carrier—until now. Mercy needs the launch codes in her sister's head but fears the possible outcome. Will tapping into Dee Dee's brain might destroy her forever? Or worse, will it reactivate the memories that her sister so willingly sacrificed years before?

Fugue State 88 is an 86,000 word piece of mainstream fiction novel set in the crumbling world of the near future.  It is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Better but not there yet.


Revision #2

Dear Query Shark,

Dee Dee Welles wants to remember the worst day of her life. So when her estranged sister Mercy reaches out to her, letting her in on a secret project that promises “life the way it used to be", Dee Dee hopes it might be a way to find some connection to the past. As it is, with no memory of the plague that decimated the population and the landscape, she will always be an outsider in a world where she desperately wants to belong.

You're zig zagging all over the place here. That first sentence (which is very good) gives us a way in to the story but then you move ahead without any explanation. We need something to understand why Dee Dee will not turn away her estranged sister's overture.

This is the classic illustration for my oft heard plea to "get your sentences in the right order!"


Dee Dee Welles wants to remember the worst day of her life. With no memory of the plague that decimated the population and the landscape, she will always be an outsider in a world where she desperately wants to belong.

So When her estranged sister Mercy reaches out to her, letting her in on a secret project that promises “life the way it used to be”, Dee Dee hopes it might be a way to find some connection to the past.

See the difference?

But when a freak accident in the project reanimates the deadly, flesh-mutating plague, putting the Farm on lockdown and transforming it from secure fortress to death-trap, Dee Dee and her comrades must work together to find a way out. In a desperate attempt to escape, they go underground to avoid not only the infected, but the deadly rat-maze of the city's streets.

62 words in that sentence. Can you hear it clunking? I can.
Don't be afraid of short sharp sentences!

But when Then a freak accident in the project reanimates the deadly, flesh-mutating plague.  putting the Farm is on lockdown and transforming it from secure fortress to death-trap.  Dee Dee and her comrades must work together to find a way out. In a desperate attempt to escape, they go underground to avoid not only the infected, but the deadly rat-maze of the city's streets.

I don't understand how streets are infected and why a rat-maze is deadly. You have to be specific. Specifics draw me in to the story. Right now this is just a lot of cliche.

In the grim days that follow, Dee Dee becomes more and more aware that once too often, she is the first one pushed out of the line of fire, and that perhaps the concern for her safety has less to do with love or loyalty than with something unspoken, something sinister. She is valuable cargo to her comrades, her friends, and most of all, to her sister. Mercy needs something in Dee Dee's head, and that something might just be the key to their escape.

Virtual Black is an 86,000 word piece of mainstream fiction set in the crumbling world of the near future. It is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Once I see the entire query I think the fundamental problem is that I don't have any sense of Dee Dee. Themes of alienation and isolation are so common as to be cliché but I don't get why she feels isolated and alone. She's the only one who can't remember the plague. What's the significance of that? Why does it make her an outsider? And why should we care? What's at stake? We know she's "valuable cargo" but why? And what's the downside of being valuable cargo for DeeDee?

If I don't care about the main character, I'm not enticed to read the book.

That's the problem you need to solve here. Moving the sentences around is moving deck chairs on the Titanic. Let's avoid the iceberg first, ok?

Start over.


Revision #1

Dear Query Shark,

Dee Dee Welles always thought that her amnesia was the natural result of a trauma — after all, she was only a child when the plague struck that decimated the population and the landscape. Life at the Farm, a walled city that protects the plague's survivors, is the only life Dee Dee knows. Judging by the haunted looks she sometimes catches on the faces of the other members of her work unit, she has always assumed that she was better off not remembering whatever horror it was that erased her memory. 

That's all set up. You don't need to fill in all the details in the query.  If her sister has a project to make life "the way it used to be" we intuit that life isn't the same as it once was.

Starting with the second paragraph starts the query at a dynamic point, not a static point. That's  because you don't have a lot of time here to catch your reader's interest.  That means: get to the good stuff.

When her sister Mercy lets her in on a secret project that promises “life the way it used to be,” Dee Dee has little reason to believe that her involvement is due to anything more than family loyalty. And yet, when the plague resurfaces and Dee Dee and her comrades face grisly opposition to their escape from the Farm, she notices that all too often, she is the first one pushed out of the line of fire. As the situation becomes deadly, Dee Dee begins to suspect that the concern for her safety has less to do with love or loyalty than with something unspoken between her comrades, something sinister. Her friends start to resemble guards; her lover, a warden – even her sister seems more and more like a calculating stranger. As the pieces of her past come together, Dee Dee starts to realize that she is anything but ordinary, and that the blank space in her memory might not be so natural, or so blank, after all.

This is still all set up. What's at stake? She's not what?

Invicta is an 86,000 word piece of mainstream fiction set in the crumbling world of the near future. It is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

You absolutely must tell me what's at stake in the novel. The stakes must be clear.  Without stakes you  have no tension. Without tension, you have no compelling reason for me to read the novel.
Without a compelling reason to read the novel, you have no full request.

What does Dee Dee want? What's keeping her from getting it?
What does Mercy want? What's keeping her from getting that?
Who's thwarting them? Why are they doing that?

These aren't questions you pose in the query, but they're the way to get what's at stake on the page.

Start over.
original query
I've gone out on a limb here and written this query from the perspective of the heroine, because the novel is also written in first person. (I realize that this is an issue you have addressed in 2008 and 2011) This is a risk I decided to take because my more traditional attempts at a query letter were being rejected or not answered, and I thought this format might transmit, in a small space, the feeling of the novel and my voice. It also felt more natural to write than my earlier attempts. Do you find this query (a) compelling enough to justify first person? (b) One for the trash can? (c) A workable first attempt?

An additional question – sci-fi as a genre. I've described this work as “future fiction” or “future-noir” but these are probably not viable genres for a query letter. The novel is in the style of William Gibson or Michael Crichton – would you list this as sci-fi? Some agents I've encountered are extremely turned off by anything listed as sci-fi, and I want agents to give my work a chance and not just chuck it because of the genre. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to misrepresent the novel. I feel like I'm in a grey area here. Should I just leave it listed as mainstream fiction?

Dear Query Shark,

Zone 3 – Perimeter.


Something is out there in the wasteland, where there should be nothing.

I see the other members of my work unit tense up – hands tight on their semi-automatics, eyes fixed on the viewscreen mounted on the interior wall of the Crusher. They anticipate the worse, even though it's been years since one has been spotted — a Riser, one of the monsters created by the resurrection plague that swept the globe a decade before, decimating the population and the landscape.

I'm not scared, though I should be. No adrenaline rush, no cold sweats. My body just can't react to what it doesn't know.

You see, I don't remember. Post-traumatic amnesia has wiped my slate clean — I'm an outsider, even to myself. Life at the Farm is the only life I know: protein slurries for nourishment, guard units for protection, work assignments from Central Command. It may be bleak but it's the only place I belong.

How would she know it's bleak if it's the only thing she knows?

My sister Mercy, on the other hand, can't let go of the past. We don't talk much, so I am more than curious when she demands a meeting, a feeling that mingles with trepidation as she begins to reveal her years of work on a secret biological project, a plan to make things “the way they used to be.” The project is nearing completion, but she senses that she is being monitored, and not just for protocol purposes. Fearing for her life as well as her years of work, she is determined to expose the project and hatches a plan to sneak me and the 5 members of my work unit into her high-security lab on the outskirts of the Farm.

At first, the promise of a new life in that verdant biotope seems like a glimpse of paradise, but only until the project goes horribly, horribly wrong. With one false step, the plague is back, and I am on the run for my life with my sister and the members of my unit. Not everyone will make it out alive.

A compelling mixture of the bleak urban future of J.G Ballard with the pace of Robert Ludlum, Invicta is an 85,000 word piece of mainstream fiction set in the crumbling world of the near future. It is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

You're very right that I've railed against writing a query in the voice of the heroine previously.  As far as I can tell here, there's no compelling reason to do so in this query either.  It doesn't work.

You write "I thought this format might transmit, in a small space, the feeling of the novel and my voice" but it doesn't.  Voice isn't who's speaking. Voice is how you say things: the words you choose, the order, the cadence the rhythm.  There's nothing here that lifts this query out of the usual -- sentences that make me think "oh yes!" and that's what you want. This query doesn't sound like a person talking about their life, it sounds like a newspaper account.

Here's voice: 
When I was six years old, we got a pair of lambs. We made them a special shelter. I petted them, bottle fed them, put on little collars and broke them to lead. I would have slept with them if I could have gotten them past my mother and into the bedroom.

And then they died.

 For years afterward I blamed myself. Too much dragging around on the leash. Not enough milk. Too much petting and hugging. It wasn't until I married a man who raised sheep that I realized their passing had nothing to do with me.

Sheep just live to die. Which is true of all living things, I guess. But most of us don't go around looking for ways to expedite the process. Or simply lie down one day and decide, "Oh, heck, why bother getting up? It's just eat and poop, eat and poop. Who needs the hassle?"

The writer is Kari Dell, and the complete blog post is here

The reason I use this as an example is because it shows in shining clarity what voice is: in those four short paragraphs you get a sense of who she is, and you want to read more. [Ok, I might not be objective about this: Kari is one of my clients and I think her writing is glorious and funny and wonderful and further that if anyone disagrees there is something wrong with them but never mind about that now.]

I don't get that sense of who your main character is, or any urge to read more from what you've got here. Thus I vote for (b) on the options above.

And if you've not been getting the responses you hoped for on your query I'm going to suggest either the concept of the novel isn't new or fresh enough to attract the eye of an agent who sees a LOT of queries, or that your protagonist seems to be wrong person.  Isn't it the sister who seems more interesting here? (Answer: yes)

And "on the run for her life" is so cliche as to be instant-reject material.  Think about the concept for The Fugitive: yes Dr. Richard Kimble was on the run for his life, but there was an over-arching narrative at work as well. He wanted to find the one-armed man who really killed his wife. That's the interesting part of the plot, that piece that keeps this from being a simple chase sequence.

As for category, I think this is what's called dystopian but there's absolutely nothing wrong with saying: Invicta is 85,000 words set in the crumbling world of the near future, and letting the agent decide where it belongs on the  shelf.


Unknown said...

Love this new format! Wheee! Just when I thought Query Shark couldn't get any better...I will be even more excited to see new posts in my feed, now!!! Thanks, Your Majesty Janet (QOTKU) - you rock! :D

Janet Reid said...

I think I should change my twitter handle to QOTKU, don't you?

Unknown said...

The acronym took me a minute.

Good addition, especially since you take time to explain WHY the approach didn't work.

I actually liked the story idea (and the execution was a hell of a lot better than my first effort!) Maybe the author will take your advice and revise.

Unknown said...

One more thought for the author:

Wouldn't it be interesting if the scientist recruited her sister to be the muscle--then realized her repressed memories held the key to the whole operation?
This might be a good one to put away for a while and come back to.
Good luck...and keep writing!

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

They anticipate *the worst,* not the worse. And the notion that he doesn't know enough to be afraid ignores the biggest fear.

But overall, the format doesn't give me a real sense of the story, doesn't make me want to read on. In fact, I didn't finish reading the query. Somewhere between the protein slurry and the sister wanting to sneak them in I lost interest and didn't read any more. Your query needs to make me want to read. This didn't.

Unknown said...

This is great, Shark, but is it manditory? I ask this because I sent a query letter to Query Shark a few weeks ago. Then I noticed on the FinePrint website that you had a query hiatus through the end of this year.

So, did my query letter become chum right away, do I wait the 90 days for a reply, or do I resend under this new format?

*hanging on the edge of the

Janet Reid said...

DC, querying me for rep consideration is a totally different gig than sending a query to QueryShark. There's a whole blog post about this which if you'd read the archives, you would have seen.


Shawna said...

Two comments:

1) The author calling their own work "compelling" is a total turn-off for me. This is true even when it's the blurb on the back that I know was probably not written by the author. It's like someone telling me, "I'm likeable!" I'd rather decide that for myself, thanks.

2) A few years ago, when I started writing a novel, I was about a chapter and a half in when I realized that the reason it wasn't working very well was because I had the wrong main character. Of the two main characters, it was the girl that should have been the real main, not the boy. Once I started over from the girl's perspective, it all worked much more smoothly. So that's definitely something to consider.

Unknown said...

@Janet Reid Might as well make it official...that way commoners don't goof up and accidentally refer to you by anything less than HER ROYAL HIGHNESS, Empress, etc. :)

Bonnie Shaljean said...

So... Janet... why DID you buy two sheep?

Janet Reid said...

Bonnie, oh my god, that is a story for another day. It's an in person, in the bar story. Sufficient unto this day to say...NEver EVER again.

Mabel said...

It seems like the story starts at "until the project goes horribly, horribly wrong." There's where tension begins, and there's where you stop the query? If you fill the entire query with back story, you're suggesting that your novel will be filled with back story.

I know that in a query you don't want to give the plot away -- you want to entice. But the thing is: you're not enticing. You want to find a way to put me on the edge of my seat from the first word. If you cannot do that in a query, the message you're sending is that you cannot (and have not) done that in the novel.

I (believe) part of the problem here is a failure to deliver tension. Not tension that has already happened that the character is reflecting upon, but tension now that someone reading the query would want to see resolved.

LynnRodz said...

A lot of what you have written isn't necessary in the query stage and don't forget a query should be one page long. The story part of your query runs well over that. There are interesting elements to your work, I like the idea of Risers. I, too, find the sister and her story more interesting because she does remember how it use to be, as opposed to the protagonist who doesn't. Your query needs to be tightened up. (I know, easier said than done!) Good luck! I look forward to seeing your revision.

@Janet I'm assuming # 2 isn't necessary for all queries, just those with questions or explanations as to why they're breaking the rules.

I say, go for it and change your handle. You'll definitely get more twitter twits and tweets with QOTKU!

Unknown said...

What a perfect query to vindicate Query Shark's traditional chum-chomping method (as if it needed vindication). When we need to explain why we write what we write, we're not writing it right. Or, to be more literary and quote Gabriel Meurier, "Qui s'excuse, s'accuse." (He who excuses himself, accuses himself.) In any case, this is just "Logan's Run" revisited, and while that wonderfully prophetic story should be revisited, the runners will need more fuel than slurries, protein or not.

Is the writer really highly high on dystopian stories? (I don't get it, this obsession with showing how we're destined as a planet to go to hell in a wretched future world-I believe in better things.) I ask because there's great potential here for a Steve King-ish thriller. Not my taste either, but if we're looking for one definition of success, 350 million in book sales means something. If you're going to write chills'n thrills, might as well get paid for it.

Raquel said...

I agree with Mabel that you’ve failed to deliver much tension in your query. I can see you know how to pace yourself, but you’re doing so as if you have the time to set things up in a novel. However, this is a query, which should be short, sweet, and to the point.

I have a few problems with your query: 1. Your novel is told from the POV of the main character and 2. The POV is in present tense. You’ve heard about the POV situation, so let me clarify #2.

Queries are in the present tense. Pretty much everyone knows this. But because you’ve written it as you have, my first impression is that the novel will ALSO be in present tense. I doubt that’s actually the case, so you may want to either nix the POV decision, or tell it from the POV of your main character in the past/future tense.

It’s hard for the author to hear that a story, novel, etc. needs to be rewritten from another character’s perspective. Perhaps it doesn’t need that; perhaps what this query needs is clarification as to why your main character is the important one. As T.D. Hart said, is her amnesia a key to the survival of the human race? Does her lack of fear make her an asset? Is she really a gerbil?

Some other questions: Did we get his/her name? Who is this person? Why do we care about her if she’s so apathetic about… well, everything?

Resurrection plague? Is this a dystopian zombie novel?

I hope this isn’t a barrage of information. It sounds like you have a solid world created. I just hope your character is as solidly built, and that we can see that.

Good luck! Thanks for inspiring the Shark to change things up!

Steven Brandt said...

One thing I like the author's choice for protagonist, despite the sister being more interesting, is that she's the less knowledgeable character. It's easier to learn with a character than get into the head of a character who already knows everything.

Theresa Milstein said...

My problem with a first person query is it becomes all telling instead of showing. Your main character is speaking instead of doing.

Steve Stubbs said...

I have to agree with Agent Reid here. I would ignore or reject this, but not because it is not query letter format. The writing sample does not work. Even with a dynamite query letter, a non-working writing sample will get you shitcanned. You seem to have the story elements thought out, so why not revise?

I assume you are a screenwriter, since the opening to your query vaguely resembles screenplay format. Methinks you will come out better if you stay with novel format.

If an agent can’t stand/despises/abominates sci-fi, why send said agent a sci-fi story anyway? Would you send a splatterpunk story to someone who only handles sentimental romance? Come to think of it, don’t answer that question.

If the story is set in L.A., there is no meaningful difference I can see between the crumbling near future and the crumbling present. Visit the downtown area some time and you will see all the crumble you want. Our motto is: Crumble is here. Dystopia is now.

To call your book “A compelling mixture ...” is tell, and not show.

If you query a certain New York super=agent, forget Ludlum and use Jeff Somers for a comp author. She represents him.

I played with your words a bit to illustrate how most novelists would do this scene. You will see it is different from what you wrote:

It was night and I just started my shift. Struggling to force bleary eyes open, I stepped into The Crusher to see my teammates clutching their pistols. Their eyes were fixed on the monitors attached to the wall.

“What are you looking at?” I asked. “There shouldn’t be anything out there in the wasteland.”

“I think there might be a Riser out there,” Captain, said one of the team members.

“A Riser?” I thought to myself. Risers were what we called the monsters who appeared in the wake of the resurrection plague. That was years ago but nobody forgot them. Nobody could. Hardly had we recovered from the plague itself, which decimated the population, before those creatures appeared. Risers had an insatiable appetite for Moon Pies. They ate out the whole stock. You couldn’t buy a Moon Pie anywhere, even at the gas station. It was terrible.

I yelled at the team member who addressed me. “Captain? Why are you calling me Captain?” I had post-traumatic amnesia and did not remember who I was. Or that is what I told people, anyway. It was a great way to excuse myself for not showing up at the Crusher six hours earlier when I was supposed to start my shift. I chuckled to myself at how clever that was. My sister Mercy could not turn loose of the past. Mercy was stupid. I had that one wired.

Standback said...

Interesting. As a big SF fan, I actually find this query to be very clear. Certain elements could get more focused, but this (second) version of the query works pretty well for me.

What does Dee Dee want? At the start, she wants to help her community; she's trying to roll back an immense catastrophe, and she also sees this as a "family loyalty" thing.

She seems to have a clear path to her goal - but the gradual oddities arouse her suspicion and a sense of alienation. Her goal, her community, and her family are suddenly seeming uncertain and threatening. In addition, resistance starts springing up - the plague, and "grisly opposition to their escape." The climax will need to be the climax of an SF mystery/thriller - Dee Dee will need to discover what the heck actually went on during the original plague, and what it is that makes her so special; she'll evidently be doing this in opposition both to her family, and to whoever is trying to keep the community pent up in the Farm.

These are definitely generalizations, and there's lots of room for improvement, but I think cramming the actual detail in here would be really tough. I think the author's done a nice job of focusing the query down to the bare bones of the SF-nal premise, the POV character, and the major plot arc. This is an SF-nal mystery, and without the worldbuilding and detail, I don't know how many specifics the author can realistically bring in here.

All that being said, I can certainly see why this might be considered Not Good Enough. SF queries are very challenging because of the centrality of worldbuilding to understanding the plot. The details Her Sharkiness is calling for are absent, and without them, I could write an equally vague query for a thousand novels and it would be very difficult for a reader to make meaningful differentiations between them.

Nonetheless, I think this is a good step forward, and IMHO a very good, solid beginning.

Liz Ellor said...

A question about backstory--I mention in the first paragraph of my QL that my MC was bullied in high school. This takes place before the story begins, but I think it's important to mention because it explains why MC devotes her life to fighting crime. Can you still mention backstory if it provides the character's motivation.

Theresa Milstein said...

I agree with QS that most of the first paragraph should go. One sentence would probably be enough set up. Novels start when something significant chances for the MC, so an allusion to that before is important--especially when it's related to the stakes.

I'd definitely like more specifics, but this holds much more promise than the first one. Can't wait to see the new version when you answer the questions.

LynnRodz said...

Well, we do know what Mercy wants - she wants life the way it use to be. I think once you clarify what's at stake for Dee Dee and what she wants (as the QS said) you've got yourself an interesting query. Apparently Dee Dee holds the key/hope for life to return to how it was. This isn't the genre I normally read, but I would definitely be interested in reading your novel. Good luck! I look forward to your revisions.

Ellipsis Flood said...

The interesting part of the story, the human hard drive thing, looks like it's some kind of big twist in the middle of the book (especially since it was omitted in earlier versions). But it's also what makes the story stand out.

Also, you say "the parts of the brain that once contained her memory". That implies that memory to be gone and replaced by the data. Later, you talk about "reactivating the memories". Are they gone now or ain't they? I'm confused here.

Theresa Milstein said...

This is a big improvement from the last query. After the beginning, I get a better sense of how the protagonist is involved and what the stakes are based on what she does. And I really get a sense of this world.

Watch out for typos. There's a "to" when you meant "too."

"...Dee becomes aware that once to often..."

smoketree said...

It's sounding more and more like Mercy is really the protagonist here. She's the one who has to make the big decision about whether to sacrifice her sister, presumably for the greater good. Kind of reminds me of season 5 of Buffy--and Dawn was definitely not the main character.