Sunday, October 19, 2014

#262-Revised 3x

Version #3

Dear Query Shark:

Growing up on Long Island, Pru watched her mother pick a parade of the worst men available, from her absentee dad to her lecherous stepdad. Young Pru dreamed of being swept off her feet by the perfect guy, raising children, and living happily ever after.

When she married Carl over her mother's objection, she convinced herself she did not share her mother's bad luck in men. Whenever anything went wrong, she fixed it and started the next day with a smile. She was as good at hiding Carl's faults as he was at pointing out hers. As she approached her 45th birthday however, Prudence Aldrich was starting to believe bad luck in men was, in fact, an inherited trait.

I was ready to mark all this out as back story, but I think you're right, we do need to know that Pru hoped for something other than what her mom had, and didn't get it.

She had grown to dread seeing Carl's car in the driveway or seeing his name appear when her phone rang. After twenty loveless years, waking up with a smile every day simply isn't cutting it. Even shopping and cheating can no longer fill the void left by Carl's passive aggressive demeanor. Blaming herself, Pru checks into Serenity Hills, hoping to save her marriage.

If Carl is such a louse, why did she marry him?

What she learns there changes everything. Other patients find Pru to be a source of strength. She sees Carl's true colors. Most of all, she finally sees a future filled with love, with or without Carl, and with or without luck.

We have no sense of what's at stake for Pru. There has to be some reason she doesn't just ditch Carl, and decamp for greener pastures.  What bad thing will happen if she wakens to new-found self respect? What worse thing will happen if she doesn't?

Without choices, or stakes, there's no compelling reason to read the book, it's just a series of events.

If you're having a hard time figuring out what's at stake, the most likely answer is nothing is.  

One of the ways to fix that is to take your ten favorite women's fiction novels and re-read them with your writer eye. Look for what's at stake in those novels, and how the writer layers that in to the story.  Then do that. You learn by watching the people who know how to do stuff.  It's how we all learn.

A DRESS THE COLOR OF THE SKY (99,000 words) is women's fiction. This is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

 Revise, resend.


Revision #2

Dear Query Shark,

Prudence wants her mom happy. She cleans the house and does the laundry but driving the car is another story. After all, she's only five.

This is a great line, except that "driving the car" doesn't relate to anything that happens further on in the query. 

Her stepdad Richard makes her do gross things with his pants down. She doesn't tell her mom because that wouldn't make her happy. Pru pretends she is someone else when bad things happen. Richard says Pru is too damned pretty and that's why he makes her do stuff she can't talk about. Richard beats her for holding her fork wrong or not filling the ice trays. Pru thinks that's better than spending a moment alone with his greasy grimy gopher guts.

Less is more on this kind of thing. I know I said be specific in that last revision, but there's a point at which too much specificity is just off-putting. I can't stand this kind of story (abuse is on my list of auto-rejects) so my tolerance is probably a lot lower than agents who DO consider this, but even with that, less is more.

Pru's marriage to Carl doesn't break her. She has survived worse things than his psychological torture. But it does take a toll. Pru's shell cracks when her infidelity becomes sex for cash. The possibility of losing Carl, and more importantly, her son scares the bejesus out of her. Not sure where to turn, Pru checks herself into rehab.

Rehab for what? I don't think this lady needs rehab. I think she needs a firearm. (That's just me, I know) But what's she in rehab for? Sex addiction? She's not addicted to sex, she's a victim of abuse. I'm pretty sure there's a difference here.

You've gone from five to (I hope at least) twenty-five here. That's a big leap in time for a query letter. Generally you want to start a query where the precipitating incident occurs. I'm going to guess it's when Prudence marries Carl and thinks she's getting out of an awful situation, only to find she isn't. Starting at that point solves the problem of all that abuse in the first paragraph--you can leave it out. 

Pru is shocked when other patients say her smile lights up a room. That's not possible when you think you're worse than dog doo stuck in a shoe. Pru's beautiful monkey brain kicks into overload. Should she leave Carl? Can she say her first authentic no?

"Beautiful monkey brain" is an odd pairing of words. Like "jumbo shrimp" or "non-fiction novel" it seems oxymoronic. It doesn't illuminate anything about Prudence to me, so you might think about another phrase.

A DRESS THE COLOR OF THE SKY (99,000 words) is commercial fiction. This is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


this still doesn't have any plot on the page and has such a jarring first paragraph that I don't think too many readers will keep reading.

Revise. Resend.

Revision #1
Dear Query Shark,

Prudence Aldrich had it all when she was born in the early 1960's in Los Angeles: shabby genteel yet glamorous parents, a rustic yet refined suburban upbringing, even a grandmother right out of a Pepperidge Farm commercial.

It all falls apart with a bi-coastal divorce, a new home and new friends. But it is her step family she cannot abide: self-centered, abusive, perverse. None of her kids books taught her how to handle those nightmares. Before long her sweet demeanor grows a thicker skin, and she takes the world one comer at a time.

This is too abstract to be interesting.  You have to tell us what happens here. Be specific. I don't mean a laundry list but "self-centered, abusive, perverse' isn't as interesting as "her new stepfather walks around naked with a gun and threatens to shoot her mom if she doesn't do what he asks."  See the difference?

Pru's emotional state unravels, and before long a blur of bars, men and one-night stands lands her in an abusive marriage with a sullen husband. Clearly, the time has come to change. But what are her options? A complete transformation is called-for: Rehab.

You're skipping over the ONE point that we need to see: the point where she decides things have to change. That's actually the start of the second act (if a book were  three-act play.) We have to see it on the page for sure, and it helps to see it in a query.

But I'm puzzled by where the book starts? How much page time is devoted to Pru's fall from her happy times in LA?  If it's more than about 60 pages, you need to cut back here in the query on the stuff that happens later.  The query should focus on where things change for the protagonist. What choice does she have to make? Or in this case what choice is made for her? And what's at stake? What does she have to sacrifice to get what she wants?

A DRESS THE COLOR OF THE SKY is a story that many contemporary women can relate to: personal habits and relationships flipped out of control, "back-burnered" dreams no one else cares about, and a total lack of emotional support.

This broad generalization about audience appeal is a red-flag to agents and editors. Leave it OUT. Tell us what the story is about.  That's it.

And what back -burnered dreams? There's no mention of that at all up to now.

Yet it is through her rehab for whatever "sex addiction" is that her butterfly emerges from its chrysalis. This soul-searching process, one she would have scoffed at not long ago, with its group therapy sessions, individual counseling, art therapy, public confessions and chastisement, radically changes her view of herself and the world. No one is "cured" of trauma in the final sense, but Prudence is on her way. On her way to freedom.

You don't give away the entire plot or the complete arc of character development in the query. You focus on the beginning of the book.

A DRESS THE COLOR OF THE SKY (99,000 words) is commercial fiction. This is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


The central problem here, other than it's a mess, is that you've given us nothing to empathize with for Pru.  She needs to catch and hold our interest. She doesn't need to be likable, but she must be interesting.  Really stand back from your narrative and ask yourself if Pru herself can hold our interest for 300 pages.

If you're not sure, or you don't trust your instinct, give it to a friend to read. Don't ask her what she thinks of the book (your friends will lie through their teeth about that, and god bless them for that kind of love and devotion, right?)  Ask her what she liked about Pru. Ask her what she didn't. That will help you figure out if Pru is interesting.

This is a mess, but it's a whole lot better than the initial salvo. I'm not sure you've studied the archives closely (you  haven't) but there's help there about getting the plot on the page.

And if you're having trouble getting plot on the page, you might consider if it's the book, not the query.


Dear Query Shark,

BEAUTIFUL: Prudence Aldrich is a striking, vivacious and captivating woman. But this is just a facade.

BROKEN: Pru harbors demons, secrets and shame. Sex addiction is plaguing her life. If she continues this self-destructive path - SHE COULD DIE. She can't lead a double life anymore.

SICK: Sex with random men and constant self-deprecation are Pru's only sources of comfort. Decades of abuse, neglect, rape and psychological torture turn and innocent girl into a self-loathing, desperate sex addict.

ADDICT: Prudence's self-destructive behavior has driven her to the brink. She must make critical choices in order to heal - accept her stolen childhood and leave her alcoholic husband. If she leaves Carl will she die? She feels as though she will.

ACCEPTANCE: Prudence joins the other "broken, addicted losers" in rehab as she seeks solace from her living hell. The patients tell Prudence she is brave, inspiring and that she lights up a room with her smile. Could all these people be wrong?

SET BACK: Prudence has sex with Carl while in rehab. Big mistake.

HEAL: Prudence inherits her beloved mother's poor choice in men. It's time for that family tradition to end. Prudence gains insight into her conflicted life and learns she has value, power, and most of all hope for an authentic, happy life without Carl.

A DRESS THE COLOR OF THE SKY (94,000 words) is commercial fiction. This is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

What in the world are you thinking here?

This is one of the oddest query letter formats I've ever seen.  I was so perplexed I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out if the ALL CAPS headers spelled something out, or were some sort of subtle clue.  If they are, it's too subtle for me. 

This is a classic case of a gimmick that Does Not Work.  Don't try to be fancy.  Don't try to be unusual. Just tell me what happens at the start of the story that will make me want to read on. Right now it doesn't. Right now this is a bunch of statements about a woman I would run from as fast as I could.. She sounds like a red hot mess. Your job is to make her compelling.

Simple, elegant writing is incredibly difficult. Don't try to take shortcuts, they Do Not Work.


Unknown said...

Perhaps the author was trying emulate query #255? Somewhat similar style that ultimately received a FTW.

JeffO said...

Part of why the above-mentioned #255 worked is because it was quick and to the point. This was just way too long and rather repetitive.

Ardenwolfe said...

I have to admit, I was trying to figure out if the CAPS ALL words had some secret message too. . . .

Laura said...

For the record, I didn't like query 255 either (movie-style doom voice isn't really my "thing") but it seemed to work because 255 was for an action/suspense novel. This seems to be about a personal journey (though I'll admit, it's hard to tell).

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

Wow. This sounds like a book I would read only while soaking in a tub filled with Lysol. The query needs to make me care enough to get to know this character, and right now all it does is make me want to run. Please note – I did NOT say the book isn't good or I don't like it. I couldn't, because I've not read it. It might be a great book, but based on this query I would never read it. Which means it fails as a query.

Ellipsis Flood said...

A friend linked this to me with the words "gimmick central." When I saw the paragraphs beginning with all caps words, I knew what she meant.

As the wise people before me said, this really sounds like #255 if not done well. It's just trying too hard.

My personal low was the SHE COULD DIE. Yelling the stakes at me doesn't make me care more, it just makes my eyes roll.

Also, if you cut the fancy words (which my brain did for me after the third), the query reads disjoint/clunky.

LynnRodz said...

I have to agree with the others, this query brought to mind #255, but it misses the mark. Another problem with this query (besides giving away the ending which is a no-no) is the protagonist is not someone I would want to spend 350+ pages with. I don't see her as you described her. You said she's been through "decades of abuse, neglect, rape and psychological torture" and she joins the other "broken, addicted losers" to seek solace from her living hell, etc. Does this sound like a "vivacious and captivating woman" to you? I know, you said it was a facade, and I could be wrong, but all this doesn't add up.

You have to give us more. Yes, she could die, we're all one day closer to death each morning we wake up, but where are the stakes that it may all end tomorrow? Is she having sex without protection? Is she choosing random men on the street in the worst part of town? Or is she having sex on horseback without a saddle? Okay, maybe not the last one, but you see what I mean.

Oh yes, one correction: "...turn an innocent girl into..."

Good luck, query letters are not easy!

Dana Breann said...

Anti heroes still need sympathy for the reader. I don't feel anything but brief moments of pity for her.

And they believe what they are doing is just.
Dexter kills as a means of social cleansing because he is a killer and knows it's wrong.

Also, it's fine to show how the MC changes in a query, but she doesn't seem to have changed if she feels her peers are "addicted losers." If that line makes sense in the novel, great, but it isn't serving the query in this draft.

Elissa M said...

Gimmick aside, this query does not entice me to read the story. I have to relate to the protagonist somehow and care what happens to her. The query only makes me want to run away.

There's nothing here that tells me this story is going to be better than or different from any other story about an abused and troubled woman. The "SHE COULD DIE" line makes me think it may very well be much worse.

Unknown said...

Query shark has said that we want to be able to relate and sympathize with the main character. but setting her up to have all these great characteristics and then saying its all a facade makes it seem like she's a liar and not someone we can sympathize with

Steve Stubbs said...

Ms. Reid’s comments are spot on as usual. I might add that you do a great job painting a main character, which you need when planning the story, but there is no plot, which you normally need to write a query. If it is literary fiction you may not need a plot. If it is commercial fiction, as you say it is, you surely need one. There is a hint at a plot when you say she has sex with Carl and that is a big mistake. But you don’t tell us who Carl is or why having sex with him matters. You also say she wants to get rid of her husband, which suggests a plot, but that in itself will not carry the story, unless she intends to murder him. This is just my opinion, but wife murders husband has been done to death (pardon me) and needs a rest. If getting rid of hubby is the plot, I encourage you to find a new twist on that. You might enjoy the movie CHOKE, which is based on a Chuck Palahnkiuk novel by the same name. It is a very original screwball comedy about a character who goes to a sex addict support group to meet sex crazed women who have an unnatural hankering for men. Others are welcome to disagree, but this is one of the very few cases in which the movie is better than the book in my not so humble opinion.

Ellipsis Flood said...


Nah, even when your novel focuses on the characters, you still need some plot for them to get through (un)scathed.

And I doubt Prudence wants to get rid of Carl by murdering him.

Still, I wish to read about what Prudence actually does in her quest for freedom. Where in the query does the backstory end and where does the plot start?

Ellipsis Flood said...

Now that the fancy all caps is gone... I'm still confused about where the story starts.

Also, as Ms. Shark says, you're leaving out the whole middle, which really sounds like the most interesting thing.

I still wonder which part of Pru's story is the focus of the novel. Each part you describe here has its advantages and disadvantages, but I doubt you can have all of them be the focal point. (Kinda defeats the point of a focal point, methinks.)

And finally, I wonder if I'm not contemporary or woman enough, because I can't relate to any of the stuff in the query. (You really make it sound like all women are in abusive environments, too, which comes across as kinda offensive.)

Steve Stubbs said...

This is much better than the first cut. My instinct is, start where things start getting really bad. Consider this:

Prudence Aldrich is in rehab. Not for drugs or alcohol. Prudence is a sex addict. She has an itch nobody can scratch. And it’s killing her.

Things get worse when she checks into the snake pit.

Unfortunately I cannot suggest anything from there on because you have not told us anything about the main part of the story. Bad Mistake. For me, a description of group therapy sessions would not carry the story. Maybe somebody is murdering the patients and Pru cannot escape because it is a lock down facility. No one is allowed out because the police want to trap the murderer. But they are trapping the patients as well. The staff insist the murdered patients have merely been discharged. Or maybe the conflict is internal. I have heard real life women sex addicts tell me they are “climbing the walls” (yes, that is a direct quote) trying to control their animal urges while pursuing therapy. Maybe Pru wants in the worst way to succeed and she has been warned if she does not keep her knickers on she is out. That would be more difficult to pull off in print, but it would be more interesting than being some counselor’s six o’clock. (That is what counselors call the client who is scheduled for 6 P.M.) Maybe there are several conflicts going on at once. Maybe Pru is paranoid. I am reminded of an old story by L. Ron Hubbard (yes, I know) about a crazy man who saw people giving him evil stares using his peripheral vision. But when he looked straight at them everything was normal. He descended into madness during the course of the story. But in the end, if I remember it correctly, it turned out what he was seeing was real. That would spice up a snake pit story big time. Maybe Pru sees men in her peripheral vision lusting for her. Yet when she looks straight at them, it turns out to be her imagination. Except that it isn’t. She finds that out at the climax of the story when she has to run to avoid being gang raped. Since the doors are locked, the odds are against her. There are all kinds of interesting things you could do with this.

BTW, it is not true that trauma cannot be healed. It can.

Ellipsis Flood said...

Like Ms Shark, I'm still not really feeling this.

I also agree that Pru sounds more like a victim of abuse than anything else. While overcoming her past/present could make for an interesting story, I'm not sure how sex addiction and the rehab factor into this. Pru has enough issues as it is.

Another thing I wonder about is the importance of Carl. In one revision, he was completely gone, and now he's back again. Based on the old revisions, Carl sounds like the closest thing to a personified antagonist this plot has. If he's that important, maybe the query needs more of him.

In general, the query needs to focus more on the actual plot/red string. I still feel like the first half is backstory.