Saturday, February 28, 2015

#269-revised twice

Revision #2

Sandra Lee Johnson's fledgling career as a government assassin may have been permanently derailed.

This makes me think that Sandra is just a new assassin but later you write:

"Sandra has survived for years as a killer-for-hire" 
so "fledgling career" is the wrong phrase here. If I change agencies, I wouldn't describe it as a "fledgling career" as a shark for RoyaltiesAreUs.  I'd  simply have a new place to hang my hat.

All because of one man.

Sandra's new employer, a DIA sub-contractor, recruited her because she could kill without remorse. She was perfect for their off-the-books charter: exterminate key terrorist supporters in such a horrific way that others would be convinced to find new occupations.

Sandra's first mission took her to Dubai, where she was supposed to terminate a high-level terrorist financier named Muhammad al-Abtari. Only one problem: unknown to anyone outside the CIA, al-Abtari was a highly prized Company asset.

Joe Armbruster, al-Abtari's handler, was aware that some unidentified group had been offing terrorists in heinous ways, and that his pet Islamist was next on their list. So he set up a sting using al-Abtari as bait.

You've solved almost all of the tone problem but it resurfaces here with "pet Islamist"

It almost worked.

Sandra managed to escape without being compromised, but Armbruster strongly suspected her involvement. Although he knew her only by an assumed name, he had seen her face.
Her organization's response was to spirit her away until they could get her off the CIA's 'Most Wanted' list.

Sandra prefers a more direct approach.

She knows it's not Armbruster's fault. Bad luck all around. Still, if you play in the killing fields, you know your death may be necessary to serve a larger purpose.

Sandra has survived for years as a killer-for-hire, so she knows how to murder and get away cleanly. Armbruster will make a very challenging target - exactly what she desires.

Unless he gets to her first.
The problem here isn't the query. You've got a good one now (once you fix that last issue with tone). The problem is what's at stake: nothing. It's a cat and mouse game between two people I don't really care about. Sandra, the remorseless killer, and Joe, the guy trying to stop her.  There's no larger issue, like the Fall of the Roman Empire, or the Coup Against The Queen of the Known Universe.

Think about the great cat and mouse game movie Hopscotch (based on the book by Brian Garfield). What's at stake there is the reputation of the CIA, but the difference is we really care about the Walter Matthau character and want him to prevail.  In your query, one side seems as bad as the other.

Assuming we're going to root against the terrorists just because they're terrorists doesn't really work. 

The question then becomes: who is the protagonist? Is it Joe or Sandra? We don't have to like either of them, but we must want one to prevail. 

In Ken Follett's masterful Key To Rebecca, we are introduced to the antagonist, and he has our sympathy for several chapters. Very slowly we come to realize he's the bad guy.  

The query for that book however would START with the fact that there is a spy in Cairo who can change the course of the war in North Africa. The cat and mouse game between the spy and the British major  has VERY high stakes (even though we actually know the outcome of the war before we even start the book.)

This is probably something to fix in the book first and then revise the query. 

And you might consider this: the idea that killing terrorists in horrific ways will dissuade them from doing anything defies logic. Uncertainty is what stops people in their tracks. The unknown. 

If you join TerroristsAreUs only to find that your friends are dropping dead for no apparent reason, in the most mundane of places, that's terrifying. Terrorists are people, not cardboard cutouts. I'm perfectly willing to risk a terrible death to defend my country. The uncertainty though of lots of unexplained deaths...frankly I'd be wondering if that was the hand of God saying "yea, you're on the wrong path, there bucko."

That's just something to think about. This is your book, and you should write the one you want. 


Revision #1

Sandra Lee Johnson is on the run.
From, of all people, the CIA.
Which, she thinks, is patently unfair. Since Sandra is working for a DIA contractor, they’re all on the same side, right?
I mean, come on. Is it her fault that Muhammad al-Abtari, her terrorist target, turned out to be a highly placed CIA asset? Or that the CIA thinks she was in Dubai to remove him from the board, even if she was?
It’s not as if she knew he was a double agent and went after him anyway. So why are they so upset?
Sure, her organization’s methods might seem a little extreme. Torture and dismemberment are illegal, blah blah blah.
Tell that to the terrorists.
The CIA might also be pissed because, about a month ago, one of her company’s teams swapped the heads of al-Abtari’s brother and sister-in-law. It messed up that hotel room in Santorini, too, but isn’t that what cleaners are for?
Again, who knew? Mistakes happen. No intelligence is perfect.
Some ball-less Justice Department wimp would no doubt love to get his hands on her organization. But for that to happen, those CIA agents first have to get their hands on her.
She’s asking herself how far she should go to protect her organization. She doesn’t really want to kill her own countrymen.
Then again, they brought this on themselves. A little inter-agency cooperation wouldn’t have hurt, would it?
There’s not much time left. Sandra needs to make a decision.
She just hopes it won’t be her last.

This is a mess. You're trying to be funny. Stop. I'm your EXACT audience for a thriller query and I can tell you that this flippant tone does not help you. Thrillers aren't flippant. They can be dark, sardonic and sarcastic, but they can't be flippant.

Also, this is a big block o'text, and thus it is close to unreadable on my screen. Almost every line here should have a line of white space after it.

As I see it you've got two problems: your query's tone reflects the book, and thus even if you polish up the query you're going to have a hard time with the book because of the tone, OR your query is not like your book, and that means all you need to do is quit trying to be clever, and just right a straightforward query that tells me who the main character is and what her choices are and what's at stake with those choices.

Have confidence that your story will be interesting in and of itself.

Revise, resend.


Dear Query Shark:

Most people, when offered a new job, find the decision process fairly straightforward. Since Sandra Lee Johnson’s profession is killing people, her decision process is understandably more complex.
If this is a query for a book about whether to take a job, you've set the stakes pretty low, even if the job is assassin.

Approached by her former ex-Army lover, Sandra is given the opportunity to kill terrorists for her country. And not just kill them, but to do so in ways that are so horrific they will dissuade the others from continuing with their radical ways. 

Illegal? Perhaps.  Effective? Probably.  Fun? Hell, yeah!

I'm as much in favor of kick ass, violent thrillers as the next shark, but I'm having a hard time with "fun."  This is one of those things that can work well in a book where you have time to meet the characters and appreciate their dark humor, or coping mechanisms. In a query, this a pretty brutal thing to read.

Sandra has a more immediate concern, however: survival. Someone now knows that she’s an assassin for hire.  Her primary objective is to find a way to protect herself.
Is she? I thought she'd been offered the job and was mulling it over (see paragraph one)

The non-governmental organization (NGO) who wants to hire her considers her to be the perfect candidate, largely because she can kill without remorse. Sociopathic tendencies are considered a positive when your job is to inflict terror. 
This is set up, and we're five paragraphs in to the query. Either this goes earlier, or comes out.

The NGO's leader has told her that, regardless of her decision, her secret is safe. Sandra can’t afford to believe them, as much as she’d like to, even though she considers the job perfect for her.

Someone knows she's an assassin? that's what's at stake?

To protect herself, she sets up a computer file outlining what she knows about the NGO. She then contacts an old friend, US Representative Pamela Calvert. Sandra knows that her former pal, who is just as callous as she is, owes her a favor.

Sandra explains her dilemma in vague and general terms. She then asks for her friend’s help, telling her she’ll send her the file if the NGO exposes her, or through a failsafe release process should they decide to remove their risk by killing her.

Sandra’s congressional friend agrees in principle with the NGO’s goals. She also realizes that exposing the organization could provide her with much-needed positive publicity for her upcoming Senate run. Accordingly, Representative Calvert sets out to find proof of the organization’s existence, uncaring of what such exposure would mean to Sandra.

Sandra would love nothing more than to take the torture game back to the terrorists. At the same time, her primary goal of self-protection may have unfortunate consequences.

If Sandra doesn’t play her balancing act perfectly, she may end up destroying both her organization and herself. Then again, as one of Sandra’s new colleagues puts it: how can you have any fun without a little risk?

Sandra couldn’t agree more. Then again, it all depends on how you define the word ‘fun.’ 
Shock Force is a 92,000 word International thriller. Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is a mess. You've got way too much focus on a question that doesn't matter: will she take the job. The book doesn't work unless she does take the job, so leave all that stuff out of the query.  Remember the Raymond Chandler quotes about kill your darlings. Here's where you see that in action.

Focus on what matters: Sandra's ugly job gets her killed unless…what? If she keeps the job a secret what good thing happens? What bad thing also happens?  What's her skin in the game so to speak?


I know you have told us not to use sentences that begin with 'but,' 'however' or 'so.' However (hee hee), the above query seems to lend itself to the use of those words.  Take the first paragraph, for example. It would seem to have more punch if it were written thusly: "Most people, when offered a new job, find the decision process fairly straightforward. But since Sandra Lee Johnson’s profession is killing people, her decision process is understandably more complex."

To me, the use of 'but' in that sentence gives the reader the instantaneous impression that what follows is going to be in opposition to what precedes it. Without that word, you don't set your emotional state to where this is going, so you have to think back to what came before to make complete sense of those two sentences. In other words, it doesn't seem to flow as well. When you read, "Since Sandra Lee Johson's . . .", you don't already know if her decision process is going to be straightforward or not, until you reach the end. It seems to be slighty more confusing without using that 'but.'

I could use the 'but' in a compound sentence, but then I'd violate your 'keep sentences short' rule.  So, my question: looking at the two competing first paragraphs, which one seems to give a better impression and flow? And could you also expand on why we shouldn't start a query sentence with those banned words?

You're worrying about the wrong thing here. The query doesn't work right now. You need to revise substantially.

And using but, how, so, or and effectively is perfectly acceptable in a query. All too often they're used as  filler. The way to make sure you're NOT using them as filler is to see if a sentence is stronger without them.  In your case, the words aren't filler.

I don't read queries with a check list of rules or watching for banned words (well, ok, fiction novel is the exception there)  I read them to find good stories I'll want to represent.  Right now you're not telling me about that story.

Revise, resend.


John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

I'm with you – too much "hell this is fun" when you've already set up that the killing is to be made as horrendous as possible. If the story is about someone who enjoys killing in a gory way then I want out. If that's just a little side note, then it doesn't belong here.
Neither does half the stuff in this train wreck of a query. It may have been fun to write, but that doesn't mean it belongs here. The only purpose of the query is to catch an agent's interest. "Murder your darlings," as Sir Atrhur Quiller-Couch said in his "The Art of Writing" lecture.

Mister Furkles said...

One problem is verbosity. Allowed 250 words, you must control your keyboard. Unnecessary words and phrases, weaken impact.


Sandra, a former special forces officer, is recruited to assassinate terrorists by the most horrific means.

Fifteen words rather than the first two paragraphs of seventy-one words. After that get to the main conflict—meaning plot specifics.

This entire query is setup. You don't need much setup. Allow yourself no more than sixty words for setup.

Sam Mills said...

I am also put off by the description of a torture-happy sociopath. I've read about sociopaths before, but there was something else about them to inspire sympathy/audience identification and it takes a skilful or humorous hand to win me over.

I also can't help wondering who the terrorists are, or if that is just a macguffin to launch a plot about uncovering the NGO.

Janey Robideau said...

I was not put off at all by the "Hell this is fun" part! I really enjoy reading about characters who have dirty jobs and LOVE them. I love novels that have a snarky, twisted, hilarious anti-hero as the main protagonist.

However, If that is what you're trying to get across with Sandra in your query, you have to do it with more than one word that implies she loves torturing people. It sounds like you want readers to care for Sandra. What makes her worth caring about?

Erica Eliza said...

The first time I read "former ex-Army lover", I thought both rejection words referred to his status as a lover. Now I see that that the ex means he's no longer her love and the former means he's no longer in the army.
Feels kind of clunky to have two rejections words, but maybe I'm just a sloppy reader. Anyone else have this problem? Would "ex-Army former lover" be any better?

MB Owen said...

I'm chilled that torture is a game.

If, in fact, she's a damaged sociopath, I don't think the tone is right in the query.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

I have two problems with this: The main character, and the query itself. As Janet pointed out, it shows no driving narrative force to trigger my curiosity and pull me forward. And Sandra comes across as so unsympathetic that I don't want to go near her, however exciting her adventures are (whatever those may be).

Can you do something to make her more rounded? If we're to care about her, we need contrasting sides to her character to break up the unpleasantness. If all I know is that she loves to torture and finds killing in horrific ways fun, I'm never going to lift the lid to explore her world further. (As things stand, I'm afraid it does feel more like "lifting the lid" than opening the cover!)

There could be a great story here - but it needs to be unearthed.

Karl Drinkwater said...

I find the terminology offputting - presumably a terrorist is someone who "kills illegally to spread terror". So the protagonist is going to become one herself? Is the main character so dense that she can't see the nonsense of her position? Or is it the narrator's voice which I'm having trouble with? You can't complain about someone fighting dirty if you do exactly the same thing: that's hypocrisy. Of course, this is a query, and the novel might address this, but it's only the query I have to go on.

JeffO said...

I thought I was reading a synopsis. Way too long for a query, never mind the other issues.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

Three thoughts on the comments –
Sam Mills wrote "it takes a skilful or humorous hand to win me over." I find that humorous writing requires a great deal of skill.
Erica Eliza – I too stumbled over "former ex-Army lover." Any time the reader has to go back and re-read something to figure out what the author is saying, it's a speed bump. Too many speed bumps and you run the risk that the reader won't bother to pick up the thread and keep going. "Former ex-Army lover" is about where I quit reading.
JeffO – Absolutely right on. For all it's other problems, the thing is just too long, by about a factor of five. An agent attempting to wade through her/his inbox is going to look at the length, read a couple of sentences, and toss it in the "form rejection" pile.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

To the author of "Shock Force" – Highly recommend you read Tom CLancy's "Patriot Games." Read the book, don't see the movie. The book is all about that balancing act. Jack Ryan and his family have been targeted by Irish terrorists. He has to protect his family. But at what price? At what point does he become just as bad as the people who are after him. That dilemma, ignored in the movie, is what the book is about. In the end, the terrorist doesn't die in a horrible boat explosion, he's arrested and tried as a common criminal, which is what he is. Your protagonist apparently has no such qualms, her concern apparently has no moral component, just regard for her own safety. and as Kari Drinkwater points out in the comments, that makes her a terrorist too.

Elissa M said...

I'm hoping there's more to the story and character than I'm seeing in the query. If the query is supposed to make me want to read the book, this definitely isn't working as is.

This line: Illegal? Perhaps. Effective? Probably. Fun? Hell, yeah!

Makes me think the author hasn't done enough research and is just making stuff up for the fun of it. Hollywood does it all the time. In novels such shenanigans don't work for me. I lose my suspension of disbelief and put the book down (or toss it across the room, depending on how irritated I am).

The tone of this query is all over the place. I don't know if this is supposed to be a serious thriller, a romantic assassin farce, or what. And because the query is all I know of the novel and the writing, it makes me think those will be all over the place, too.

As the shark says, revise. This might be a fun/thrilling novel. Make me want to read it.

Anonymous said...

An NGO (non-governmental organization) is a charity.

NGOs tend to run elementary schools and clinics. Microcredit projects and other services that help with economic development in impoverished regions.

It's my understanding that these worthwhile and important projects seldom require the hiring of hitwomen.

Theresa Milstein said...

This query is about 400 words, which is too long. It reads like a synopsis, except it doesn't seem to get past the early stages of the novel. Right now, you're repeating herself about her waffling over taking the job.
Who is after her? How does that start to play out?

Another issue: Calling it fun to murder in horrific ways is not making a likable protagonist. Something else needs to be compelling about her if she's so ruthless. Calling her a sociopath works against you.

My first paragraph addresses issue with the query. But my second could be issues with the manuscript. Is part of her journey going to be to find her humanity? I hope so. And if so, hint at it. If this is a thriller and she's a sociopath, then I'm kind of rooting for the people after her. After all, she's no better than the terrorists. Terrorists think the end justifies the means. So does she. If you, the author, get that hypocrisy, make sure we know it.

Sara said...

Is the book about Sandra torturing and murdering people? Or is it about Sandra trying to figure out if she can take her dream job of torturing and murdering people and still keep her identity as a murderous sociopath for hire a secret? The first few paragraphs makes the job itself sound like a big part of the story, but the rest suggests that the job is just Sandra's goal and could be anything that puts her on the wrong side of the law.

You can have an unlikeable or unsympathetic protagonist, but they have to be so fascinating that the reader wants to see what they do and what happens to them. Sandra is not fascinating. I don't get the sense that she's really smart or a super skilled hit woman who will be up tackling near impossible job in interesting ways. I don't know enough about her to wonder how the enjoyment she gets from torturing and murdering people fits into the rest of her life. She's just a person who kills for fun and at this point, I really don't care what happens to her.

Ex-Army ex-lover can be an ex-character in your query since he only shows up once and never returns and the description of him is insanely confusing. Plus, Sandra's concern that a mysterious somebody knows her secret works better if the offer isn't coming from someone she knows.

Like ARC said, the NGOs I hear about on the news are usually more in line with the Red Cross. This sounds more like a bunch of vigilantes.

I suspect you want the reader to dislike Representative Calvert because she's willing to expose this organization for her own political gain regardless of what happened to Sandra. But since I don't like Sandra, I don't care if Calvert's actions put her in danger. I don't like either of them, but at least Calvert isn't getting excited about a job that consists of murdering people in gruesome ways.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

This is queried as an International Thriller. I don't see any international connection. What countries are involved?

The antagonist enjoys killing in Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes. There are lots of books where the sociopath protagonists enjoy killing. But the joy of murder and torture doesn't hook my interest.

It seems like there is a story here worth reading but this query (that reads more like a synopsis) doesn't make me want to read it.

Calorie Bombshell said...

Query is too long on words and too short on motivation. If Sandra kills merely for the heck of it, I'm afraid you haven't yet zeroed in on your story. Good luck!

Mister Furkles said...

A bit off topic: You've attributed 'kill your darlings' to Raymond Chandler but I don't find it among his quotations. Many site Faulkner as having said “In writing, you must kill all your darlings” And Hemingway called this ability his “Built-in bullshit detector”. But the earliest such quote appears to be from Oxford Don Arthur Quiller-Couch's On the Art of Writing 1913 lectures: “Murder your darlings.”

And I'm not a robot. Sometimes I wish I were. Robots have no qualms about killing their purple prose.

Bruce Harrison said...

Hey, guys. Thanks for all your critiques. Let me respond to some of your criticism:

John, Sam, Janey: I understand that you don't like the idea of someone who likes to kill, or does it as part of their sociopathy. I ask you to consider Hannibal Lechter, and how you would respond to that character.

Sometimes, horror combined with sociopathy works. Unitl you've read the novel, it's hard for you to judge. And, it's difficult to put that complexity in a query. Any help you can give me on that would be appreciated.

Sandra is a complex character. But underlying her sociopathy is a desire to do something good for her country. I know that's hard to describe in a query, but would you feel the same if you knew I was Tom Clancy or Lee Child?

John again, to your second comment: I have read "Patriot Games." That's the point I'm trying to make. Is extremism in the pursuit of extremism a virtue or a vice? How do we respond to terrorists who don't understand our culture, but instead try to impose their culture on us? And is turning the tables on them moral or immoral? And who decides, and how?

Many of you seem to have a problem with my saying, in my character's voice, that (as it pertains to killing terrorists), "Hell, this is fun."

Do you deny that there are some people who love the rush they get when they go after human prey? Or at least, some characters in popular and successful fiction do the same thing, don't they?

That's where I'm trying to go with this concept, without descending into pointless gore and idiotic excess.

Please feel free to excoriate me. Evisceration is part of the QueryShark experience, God help me.

I do appreciate your criticism, and will equally appreciate it when my revised query is posted.

Thanks again, chums.

Elissa M said...

After reading this first revision, it looks like the novel IS flippant, which means it's not a standard thriller, it's more of a parody or farce. (Understand, I'm just going by what I've seen here.)

If it's a serious, heart-stopping thriller with an anti-hero protagonist, the query isn't showing that.

I'm assuming that the novel, whatever its tone, is an engrossing read that I would recommend to others after I've finished. Right now, the query doesn't make it look that way. Show me what the book is about and why I want to read it.

I hate to say it, but there's always the chance that the problem isn't the query as much as it might be the novel, while complete, needs a few revisions itself. Maybe the beta readers weren't as forthright as they should have been, or perhaps they're not familiar enough with the genre to give good feedback.

Whatever the issue, novel or just query, don't give up. Perseverance is the one thing all successful writers have in common.

Ellipsis Flood said...

The query:

The revision gives me the feeling of being elbowed in the side so I pay attention to the funny stuff.

Between all that elbowing, I can hardly get a grasp of what's going on (the old query did this better). Why is it relevant that some poor underpaid sods have to clean up the mess Sandra made?

I can't get behind Sandra, either. You mention (outside your query, so it doesn't really count) that there's more to her. But is the side of her you want to present to an agent really the one who frolics through piles of mutilated corpses?

The response:

I see where you want to go, but I'm not sure you're on the right way. While you're telling us that Sandra's this deep character with a sadistic streak, you're not really showing much of that. The query makes her sound more like "lol kill people" than anything else.

You ask if we'd "feel the same if you knew I was Tom Clancy or Lee Child?" We already know Tom Clancy and Lee Child can write good characters and plots. If one of them showed up with such a "lol kill people" protagonist, I'd be confused, but still take at least a peek at it because I know who they are and what they write. You, on the other hand, don't have those credentials on your side.

Lauren said...

Different strokes for different folks and obviously you should defer to, you know, the expert, but I like the updated query and I'd be drawn to this book. I could go for a fun thriller and I like that the torture-loving main character is a woman.

Sara said...

Author, you've said here that Sandra is a complex character and that your book examines questions about the morality of using extreme tactics against extremists. Neither of those things are coming through in either the first or the latest draft of the query.

I don't see a complicated person who tries to use her extreme violent tendencies to do something good for her country. I see someone who enjoys killing and found a convenient outlet for it.

I don't see a thriller that will examine the difficult moral issues surrounding terrorism and the response to it. I see "Oops, I seem to have brutally murder a double agent by accident. Who am I going kill to get out of this pickle?"

If the book tackles the issues through Sandra slowly coming to question whether torture and dismemberment are the best way to combat terrorism, then there needs to be some hint of that happening in the query. If Sandra remains oblivious and it's other characters or the readers themselves who are going to be pondering those questions, then you might want to try a draft of the query with a little more distance from Sandra. It's doable to have a protagonist who does horrible things and enjoys it, but it might be a good idea to make it clear that the book is not about condoning these actions. That's really hard to do if all we're seeing is how Sandra feels about what she's doing.

Part of the trick to writing a story that tackles moral questions like this is to make a person doing something horrible and the actions they take seem sympathetic and understandable. That's not coming across in the query. I started reading it thinking that torturing terrorists is a bad idea and nothing in the query makes me think the book would do anything to move me from that position, even for a second.

Theresa Milstein said...

I will say that this query has more voice, which is a good thing. I'll also mention that she sounds a little less like someone who kills for the thrill. Sides are drawn and some complexity has been added.

Set this up like a regular query with some voice (though less humorous) and keep the stakes your focus, and this will get closer to what you want.

Since I really don't know what your manuscript is like and how this is alike or different, I'll just focus on the query itself.

Bruce Harrison said...

Hi, guys, here I am again. And thanks again for the critiques; once more, very much appreciated.

The tone I tried (and obviously failed) to give the query was the view from Sandra's emotional perspective: a glimpse into a mind that has both narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies. My research into those mental challenges were quite interesting. I tried to write the query around that.

For example, such people are like arrested development pseudo-children. They view everything from the standpoint of their desires, regardless of what they have to do to achieve them. They tend to blame others when their plans go awry. They brush off as incidental what we would classify as horrible, and can't judge what's truly wrong in an action or situation. Hence the line about drawing an equivalency between murdering someone and that act making the room a mess.

There are also many misconceptions about sociopaths that come out in the novel, but that's outside the scope of this response.

Sandra doesn't live to kill. She was frustrated because the Army never let her go into combat (the novel starts six years ago). However, she can kill without remorse, so she chose a lucrative career as a killer-for-hire. She looks upon killing as a challenge. Its moral justification is not her concern. The ultimate challenge, for Sandra, is to take on human prey and win.

Becoming an assassin for her government fits her perfectly. It gives her the opportunity to test herself in the most challenging situations possible, but still stay somewhat within what society would consider moral bounds (one of the questions the novel raises). She is both ruthless and remorseless, but she (at least to herself) is not a monster.

It's very hard to put all that in a 250-plus word query. Sorry that the tone came across as flippant; that was not my intent.

I'm going to take another stab at it, focusing on the central conflict of the novel. There will be no flippancy, and it might give you a better flavor of the book's tone. If I fail once more, feel free to tell me and I'll try again. Practice, hopefully, makes, if not perfect, then at least effective.

Again, thanks to you all for your critiques. I will try to do better so all of you, and Ms. Shark, will be proud of my efforts.

brevity said...

Hi Author,

This comment is more for your novel than your query, but since you mentioned Hannibal Lecter, I wanted to offer a response. Extreme characters typically have a much more normal counterpart who balances and humanizes them. Hannibal Lecter had Clarice. Sherlock Holmes had Watson. Nelson DeMille's signature character John Corey has his ever-patient wife, Kate Mayfield.

Incidentally, Corey is a total smart ass who kills terrorists and other bad guys in gruesome ways. (I suggest you read The Panther if you haven't already.) Corey's wife often overlooks his crudeness and rolls her eyes at his obnoxious remarks, but she respects him. She trusts him. Watson trusts and respects Holmes. Clarice trusts and, to some degree, respects Lecter. Is there a character in your novel who trusts and respects Sandra? Someone who balances and humanizes her? Is there a sympathetic character whose fate depends on Sandra's choices?

That might be one of the missing elements here. Right now you describe a sociopath having a tough time with her job. No one cares if a sociopath has a bad day at the office. Give us something more.

By the way, listen to your last comment: "I will try to do better so all of you, and Ms. Shark, will be proud of my efforts." Imagine THAT voice for Sandra. What a chilling contrast it would create!

Leila Rheaume said...

I feel like Brevity's comment deserves a standing ovation. If your ms has a more grounded character (the ex-Army lover perhaps?) who will also be affected by the choices Sandra makes, then this query might be missing that touch. That might bring a more human element for the reader to care about since showing an emotional Sandra wouldn't accurately reflect the character at all.

I'd add that your other example of a sociopath, Dexter Morgan, had several characters like this throughout the show's run as well. There was Rita, his step kids, Harrison, his coworkers, and Deb. More people than just Dexter would have been affected if he failed or was caught.

Like Brevity said, it's hard to care for a sociopath who is only looking out for numero uno.

Sara said...

This is much better than the first two drafts, so congratulations on that.

You might want to drop the "All because of one man," since the next man mentioned is not that one man and he doesn't show up until a few paragraphs later.

I'm a bit confused about what Armbruster's plan was and how it "almost worked" but didn't. My guess is that he intended to set a trap for Sandra with al-Abtari as bait, have an ambush ready to either capture or kill the would-be assassin, and keep al-Abtari from getting killed. You don't need to describe the whole sting operation and how Sandra eludes capture in lavish detail, but if I have some inkling of how it all went down,I'll have a better sense of how good Sandra is at her job and how competent Joe is.

What is the larger purpose that Armbruster's death would serve? From reading your previous comments here, I'm guessing it's the good Sandra believes her organizations and the work she does for them are accomplishing. But it's not clear in the query. Plus the next paragraph makes it seem like Sandra's main motivation is the thrill of the hunt rather than protecting her country by going on the offensive.

Another way to look at the issue of brutally killing terrorists to dissuade other people from going down that path: do you think it would work the other way around? If there was a group sending assassins to torture and kill high ranking American military officials, what do you think the result would be? I can believe that a group my believe that this tactics would work, but I'm having a harder time believing that they'd see the kind of results that would prove that theory. You've said in the comments that your book raises questions about Sandra and her tactics, but that's no in the query. It's just spy vs. spy with no moral quandary hinted at.

Leila Rheaume said...

Honestly, I like the newest version, at least enough that I'd be willing to peek at the first few pages in the store and see if Sandra is an interesting protagonist. Hopefully those first few pages are killer!

Theresa Milstein said...

I agree with QS on all counts of this newest revision. This is a much better query. I'm really impressed with the change.

But the killing to dissuade didn't make sense to me either. And it also doesn't seem to fit with the idea of an assassin. They don't stick around. They get their target quick and clean, right?

And if she's willing to kill without remorse in horrific ways on purpose, that just makes her more unlikable. She needs something special/human to make readers root for her.

Steve Stubbs said...

I have to agree with Ms. Reid and give her considerable credit. If I were an agent I would overlook the “pet islamist” gaffe. But I found myself thinking rhe query is very well done and yet I would not read this. I could not put my finger on why, but Ms. Reid did. With nothing at stake the feeling is WTF?

There are a few plot problems. Dubai is not the Yemeni desert. The country is rich, there are security cameras everywhere, and the lady assassin’s picture would be all over the world the day after the operation. You probably remember the so-called mossad pulled off a hit in Dubai a few years ago and every jihadi in the world knows what they look like. It was like Larry, Curly, and Moe over there. You could make your character a master of disguises, but it is probably better to move the scene.

I also cannot persuade myself CIA agents snuffing out DIA agents because of an inter-agency rivalry. The CIA has been in an intense rivalry with FBI agents in real life for some time, but I don’t recall any scandal in which G-men were left bleeding in the streets.

Another thing is that snuffing foreign terrorists on foreign soil tends to get handled by JSOC and each operation is approved beforehand by the president. Nobody cares how easy or hard their deaths are.

There is a movie with a similar topic you might rent if you can find it called THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. It is not realistic, but it is IMO arguably the best spy movie ever made. It is set during the Cold War and was released back then, so it may not have the same impact today. Robert Redford plays a CIA analyst whose non-existent section in NY is wiped out by assassins of unknown origin. There is very little at stake but the movie is riveting nonetheless, and the ending is primo.

Bruce Harrison said...

Steve - quick comment: in my novel, CIA agents aren't snuffing out DIA agents. The rank-and-file agents have no idea that the DIA has subcontracted out this kind of operation to a civilian contractor. The only one who wants to kill another agency's asset is my main character, who thinks it's the only way out of her situation - or at least the easiest. Sorry I didn't make that clearer, but I only had 250 words.

Bruce Harrison said...

Hi, fellow chum!

Once again, your comments are much appreciated. Some comments on your comments:

When I read Ms. Shark’s entire site (my eyes!), I somehow got the mistaken impression that queries should be limited to 500 words. Then, after submitting my first attempt, your feedback told me that my query had 250 words too many. Don’t know how I missed that, but I did. So now I have to condense the entire universe of three novels into 250 words, in a way that will make an agent want to read it and, hopefully, offer representation.

Steve mentioned the Dubai operation, and its perils. I was using my main character as bait to get al-Abtari out into the desert – well aware of the problems in Dubai from a security standpoint, but thanks. She almost gets caught before that can happen, in the Skyview Bar of the Burj al-Arab, in case anyone’s interested in Dubai locations.

Steve also said that JSOC kills terrorists. That’s true. But my fictional organization goes after a different kind of beast: the terrorist financier. The person who moves their money for them and keeps them in bullets and burkas.

The financiers are not your typical Islamist fanatic. They lead pampered lives and have no desire to martyr themselves. They have the Islamic version of Papal Dispensation; they’re rich and highly placed in society, and as such are perfect targets for coercion. Sorry I didn’t make that clearer in the query; I’ll work on it.

I had mentioned Hannibal Lecter, and his relationship with Clarice Starling. One of the most unrealistic things I’ve ever read in a novel is when Clarice falls for Hannibal. It made no sense and seemed a missed attempt at a happy ending; at least not to me.
I am trying to avoid anything that will make my readers go, “No way.” No magic computer geeks who provide deus ex machina results when the author can’t think of how to get information any other way. No magical plot twists or misdirectional red herrings to keep the reader from guessing the ending. If you’d like to see, IMHO, one of the most terribly plotted and implausible examples of what I’m talking about, read Dan Brown’s absurd novel,Inferno. A great author with a ridiculous book that he must have written as a joke to see if anyone would catch on.

Shock Force (working title) is the back-story of the (currently) three-book series. In its universe’s timeline, it happens first, but if I were to have my druthers, it would be published third. If I can get an agent interested and present the complete universe, I can discuss the others in the series as well as the order, and work on the novels to make them more commercially viable. We shall see.

In any case, thanks again for all your feedback. I don’t know if anyone would be interested, but it might be fun to set up a blog or email round table of the people here who can critique both queries and partial works. It would sure help me.
It was just lucky that I made, as Ms. Shark said to me, ‘interesting mistakes that no one had made before.’ A unique opportunity for a top agent to give feedback. Very much appreciated; but she doesn’t have the time to work with us the way we could work together.
If anyone’s interested, you can reach me at bruceharrison (at) Good luck to you all, and keep the faith.