Saturday, September 26, 2015

#270-Revised 2x

Revision #2

Dear QueryShark:

His dead mother's voice stabs Ramanya in his ears and wakes him: "I'm alive. So is your sister. We were not in that pile of burning bodies in our village. You left too soon. Come home."

Home is Burma, where Ramanya is wanted by the government for war crimes. Home means death if he returns and is captured.

So, why is he going. More important, why does his mom want him too? Surely she knows the cost of his capture and doesn't want him killed?

Ramanya now lives in Thailand as a Bhuddist monk.
Hearing his mother's voice was just a random dream, right?  Or was it something more?

Something more, says the strange man in the red silk shirt who appears at the temple. The man says Ramanya's family really is alive and hiding in Burma. He says Ramanya's mother is dying and she sent the man to Thailand to find him.

Again, why?

That same day armed rebels stage a violent takeover of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok. Hostages are taken-- a standoff with the Thai military.  Tensions between the two countries rise. Armies mobilize and  head toward the borders.

Ramanya and two of his closest confidants, a British priest and an American teacher, have about 48 hours to get to Three Pagodas Pass and sneak Ramanya back in his country before the borders are completely sealed.

 Washed out bridges, broken roads, Military checkpoints, corrupt cops, Burmese bounty hunters: those are just some of the many dangers as they travel through smuggling routes deep in the jungles and mountains of Thailand.

This sounds pretty tepid to me. Hell, half that stuff is what people face in their daily lives in some countries. There's no sense of tension here because nothing's at stake.

All while trying to get --- Home.

"Don't Go, Ramanya" is currently _______ words. I'm a first time novelist. I'm querying you because of your interest in commercial fiction.

Thank you,

 This is certainly better than the previous iterations. Much more organized.
The problem is still that nothing is at stake. What bad thing happens to Ramanya if he fails to get home? What worse thing will happen if he does?  

Without a sense of tension, this is too bland to engage my interest. 

I was a bit surprised the stir my use of the terms "literary thriller/literary fiction/upmarket fiction" created as those are terms I see agents use to describe the projects they are looking for.

This book is not straight genre. It incorporates elements of a traditional thriller but is focused more on the characters. So if you have time, any advice about how to "categorize" one's story would be great.

Revision #1
Dear Query Shark,

Ramanya is a former Burmese rebel soldier now living as a Buddhist monk in Bangkok, Thailand. One morning his dead mother appears to him in a dream, telling him she will see him soon. Later that same morning, a strange man follows him through the city streets back to his temple and tells Ramanya learns that his family he believed was murdered sixteen months ago, is actually alive and in hiding back in his country. Ramanya is wanted for war crimes by the junta ruling Burma, so a trip home to search for them would result in certain death if he were captured.

Why would he search for them? They're in hiding; he's in hiding. What is so urgent he needs to go find them?  What does he have to find or do for them that he will risk his own death?

That day, a group of armed rebels takes over the Burmese (Myanmar) embassy in downtown Bangkok. The ensuing hostage crisis (a true event) gives Ramanya only about 48-hours before the military completely seals the Thai-Burmese border. He seeks advice from two of his closest confidants: Father Bob Hanlan, a British priest and political agitator whose Catholic relief organization sponsors Ramanya and other refugees at his temple, as well as from his English language teacher Michael Shaw, an American employed by Father Bob's group. 

That sentence is 47 words long. Focus on the information a reader needs to know right now, as s/he reads the query. You don't need a full bio for every character at the query level. You don't have room for it either.

 And the larger problem. Why is he asking these two guys for advice? Advice on whether he should go or not? If he doesn't, there's no novel. So we know he is going to go, thus all this asking advice info is unneeded.

Besides, this makes Ramanya sound like he's a child. If he's a grown man with a sense of urgent mission, you think he's asking anyone for advice? Maybe for where to buy a grenade launcher but that's about it.

However, each of those men has tragedies in their pasts and secrets they are hiding: Father Bob is wanted by the Burmese military for his role instigating a violent street protest in Rangoon. After Bob is followed and attacked during a nighttime motorcycle-taxi chase, a crooked Thai police captain uses the event to blackmail him: Father Bob must either pay him for protection or he'll turn Bob over to Burmese intelligence. 

 We don't need to know all this right now.

Michael is a popular teacher who has been working at the temple, but he is struggling with addiction and on the run from legal and personal problems in the States. After a public meltdown on the streets of Bangkok, Michael realizes he has hit "rock bottom". He seizes on the opportunity to help Ramanya, his favorite student, in a desperate attempt to pull himself out of his spiral of ever-growing isolation and self-destruction. 

We don't need to know all this either.

Accompanied by two friends, Ramanya, They takes off on a journey through the exotic and sometimes dangerous countryside of Thailand toward Three Pagodas Pass to get Ramanya back into his country and reunited with his family, all while trying to outrun the bounty hunters, set loose by the corrupt Thai cop, who are closing in on Father Bob.

this is the gist of the novel and you've reduced it to 29 words. Bland words. Fewer words than you use to describe Father Bob. "Exotic and sometimes dangerous" doesn't give us any flavor at all.

You're focused on the wrong thing here. You're so busy talking about the characters you've forgotten the plot.  Why is Ramanya so intent on getting back to his family?

I also get no sense of Burma or Thailand here. Not in the descriptions, not in your word choices. 

I know you said you were focused on character, but PLOT is why we'll care about what happens to these people. You've got to have plot, here in the query, to be enticing.

I’m a first-time novelist. I have had several short stories published in various underground or regional journals, as well as some (now defunct) e-zines: in 1999-2001 Lightwave published four of my stories. In 2000, a much earlier version of my website was named "Top Five Literary Sites" by Yahoo/Pulp Eternity. An unproduced screenplay I wrote was a finalist in the Academy Awards Nicholl Fellowship.

These pub credits are 15 years old. Do you have anything more recent? Outdated pub credits don't help you here.

I’ve reached out to queried you because of your interest in upmarket fiction.
Be plainspoken. Say what you mean.

Thanks so much for taking the time to consider this.

Take care,

To answer your questions at the start of the query:
Agents use those terms "upmarket fiction" and "literary thriller" to describe what they're looking for, sure. Your novel has to be one or the other or neither. You used both terms in your original query. As far as I can tell here, it's actually neither.  It's more like a quest or adventure novel. It's certainly not literary. That makes it commercial fiction, which is a very good thing cause almost every agent in the world looks at commercial fiction.

Revise, resend.


Original query
Dear Query Shark,

Ramanya, a former Burmese rebel soldier now living as a monk in Thailand, thinks believes his family was murdered sixteen months ago. Then a mysterious man tracks him down and says they are alive. He is wanted by the junta ruling his countryBurma, so a trip home to search for them would result in certain death if he is captured.

Other than being a little clunky (which generally means you just haven't revised enough) this isn't a bad start to a query. Readers will have a sense of what Ramany's problem is (his family might be alive) and what's keeping him from getting what he wants (he's wanted in Burma.)

Father Bob Hanlan, a British priest and political agitator, has ties to the rebel soldiers now staging an armed takeover of the Burmese (Myanmar) embassy in Bangkok. He sees shadows following him everywhere he goes. There is a bounty on his head, and a corrupt Thai police officer is using it to blackmail him. 

This is a less effective paragraph. "Sees shadows following him everywhere" is too abstract to provide tension. If there's a bounty for him, why hasn't the Thai police officer collected it? Why is there a bounty on him? This paragraph produces too many questions.

Michael Shaw, an American teacher caught in the seedy underbelly of life in Bangkok, uses booze and sex to try and forget all the legal and personal problems he is running away from in the States. His students love him, but it’s not enough to stop him from sinking into a spiral of self-destruction. 

And this is where I start to roll my eyes (which is NOT something you want your reader to do.) This character might as well be named Cliché Expatriate.  You need to find a way to describe this character so he's of interest to the reader. To do that, consider why Michael Shaw would think he's the hero of this story. 

All three come together and set off on a 48-hour journey to get Ramanya back into his country and re-united with his family. The trip takes them through the exotic, sometimes dangerous countryside of Thailand. Their relationships deepen along the way, propelling the story toward a powerful climax at Three Pagodas Pass along the Thai-Burmese border.

"All three come together" means what? They're sharing a taxi? It will help if we have a sense of what connects them, and why  they want to help Ramanya. In other words, what's at stake for the characters.  

"Their relationship deepen(s) along the way" makes it sound like they're all having sex. It may be Thailand but I'm pretty sure that's not what you mean.

"Propelling the story toward a powerful climax" is another eye-roller if we are wondering if they are having sex.

Clearly that's not what you intend here. Where you're foundering is on generalities.  Be specific. Remember, you do NOT include the whole story. At most you include Act 1. The purpose of a query is to entice the reader to ask for the whole novel.  You should NEVER include the climax of the novel or the ending in a query.

"Don't Go, Ramanya" is a literary thriller currently about 54,000 words in length. 

And here's where I would stop reading and say no. This isn't a literary thriller right now (more on that later) but the word count is the real stumbling block. There's simply no way you can write a fully realized story set in Thailand with three interlinking characters and clock in at 54K. 

One of the great things about reading books set in places that aren't' my apartment is that I get a sense of a place that is new, different, unusual. Describing that world so that your reader is immersed takes words.  I want to see those streets, smell the air, feel the humidity, get a sense of how people there live their day to day.  You need double this word count most likely.

I'm all for lean and elegant books, but this isn't that. It's anorexic. And the reason I know this is cause your query didn't have much heft to it either.

 Now, literary thriller.  Literary is tricky. Literary is used to describe the writing rather than the plot. We use it when we mean the book has phrases and sentences that knock your socks off.   Generally it's not  phrase I use when pitching a thriller because thrillers need to be commercial. That said, I've got some guys writing pretty literary stuff. I'd offer up Lee Goodman and Jeff Somers as two examples. Two examples of guys writing straight up commercial thrillers: Patrick Lee, and (not a client) Lee Child. 

You have ONE element of a thriller here: the ticking clock. Unfortunately we don't know why the clock is ticking.  What happens at the end of the 48 hours?

Two other elements of a thriller are: an international stage (generally that means the plot moves from place to place, not that it's just set in an international location); stakes above the personal (governments fall, war breaks out etc).

And of course, you're missing an antagonist. That's a problem.

I’m a first time novelist. I have had several short stories published in various underground or regional journals, as well as some (now defunct) e-zines. In 2000, a much earlier version of my website was named "Top Five Literary Sites" by Yahoo/Pulp Eternity. I publish under the pen name  "Pen name". My full name is "Real Name" I’ve had many different lives, including film and video production on such projects as "The Lord of the Rings" films. You are welcome to Google me or see my LinkedIn page for more about my background.

This isn't how you list a pen name. You either sign the query with your name and say (writing as: nom de plum) or sign it with your nom de plume. 

And your name goes at the close of the query, with all the contact points like phone and website underneath it. Don't count on anyone using LinkedIn to get information about you. Since LinkedIn was one of the worst causes of spam, I unsubscribed and blocked it from my email. I can't see much more than a name if I click on a link.

I’ve reached out to you because of your interest in upmarket literary fiction. I’m going after a modern day “Graham Greene” vibe in this story.

If you're writing a literary thriller you really want to reach out to agents because of their interest in literary thrillers not upmarket literary fiction. Also "upmarket literary" is redundant. 

I'm not sure how effective the Graham Greene comparison is. For starters his books are 30-50 years old now. People read them more as genre education than because someone handed them a copy and said "oh my god, you must read this."  Word of mouth is the single biggest way books are sold, so comps should be books that people are talking about.

Thanks so much for taking the time to consider this.

I can be reached directly at:

Put all this at the bottom, under your signature

Take care,

(website again)

You only need to list your name and your website once.

I have a particular soft spot for stories set in Burma/Myanmar, so I'm exactly your target audience for this query. The query did not do its job however. It did not entice me to read pages. 

Get more plot on the page. Make me desperate to find out what happens next.

 If you can cough up an antagonist, that would be a good thing here. 

Revise, resend.


Ardenwolfe said...

Thank you for this critique. Word count, especially the low end, always made me wonder if it equaled instant rejection from some agents.

Anonymous said...

This was an interesting critique. I read the word count and thought, "ah, it's a prologue!" Well, not quite, but given my track record I did laugh a bit. I might be able to write a cookbook in that length.

Good luck to the original poster. I look forward to revisions.

Thank you to Janet.

nightsmusic said...

I have a real disconnect between your three protagonists here. Each paragraph almost reads like a separate story or a former rebel, a priest and an ex-pat walk into a bar...I was waiting for the punchline. There needs to be something in one paragraph mentioning all three that's more than them coming together because right now, I don't care that they do. And that's a big problem. Would I care if I read the story? I don't know. I'll never get that far. How do they come together?

Ramanya, a former Burmese monk, who thought his family slain has learned they are alive. He seeks out Father Hanlan, British priest and political activist, to help him return to Burma to search for them.

And then I don't know how your teacher plays into the story at all because you give no clue.

I don't know literary except what I'm told is or isn't. I know a ripping good story when I read one though. Your query has to reflect that somehow.

DLM said...

Ahh, this: "Describing that world so that your reader is immersed takes words. I want to see those streets, smell the air, feel the humidity, get a sense of how people there live" ...

I was once told by an agent my histfic - 128k words at the time, after a long period of slashing it way way way way down from, I think, nearly 168k - needed furniture in the rooms and food in the kitchens. Ax ended up at about 135k and of course I probably will never be able to sell it, but I learned a lot about cutting *too* much and, as inventory goes, I feel like at least it's not a novel to be ashamed of.

It's an incredibly hard balance, word count. With histfic especially, there is a great population of folks who get the vapors above 100k - I cannot count how many times I've been told my word count is a deal breaker. Now that I'm not shilling it anymore, I am not persuaded that was the real issue; and certainly it was illuminating to be told 128k was too lean. I don't suffer from a great proportion of the usual woodland creature fears, but word count is possibly a greater bane to my writing existence even than The Dread Synopsis.

As to this query given the lean word count quoted, it's oddly not-lean. My ex father-in-law used to say "it's like going around your ankles (*) to get to your elbow." This feels a little like that.

(*He did not say "ankles" - though the anatomical reference employed did begin with the letter A.)

DLM said...

Am I odd, by the way, that the idea of calling my own work literary seems presumptuous? If one of my nearest and dearest asked, I would probably say I think it might be; but it seems like bragging. I write histfic and call it that. Any more subjective assessment doesn't go in my queries, and I defer to any opinion but my own for that in any case. Probably an unreasonable way of looking at it, but fortunately 'to "literary" or not to literary"' is not my most important question.

Adele said...

I also felt the disconnect that nightsmusic refers to, and I think it comes because these characters are thrown at the reader bang, bang, bang, and the reader is trying to make some sense of the relationship without any other information. As I read the first three paragraphs what came into my head sounded like something out of a Mel Brooks movie:

"I need help to secretly enter Burma to search for my family. I have a British priest with a price on his head, now all I need is a drunken American."

It isn't obvious how his companions would help Ramanya at all. Surely as a former soldier he has the best fighting skills of the three, and would best be able to sneak into his own country, while the other two would stand out as foreigners, and with their notoriety (the priest) and unsteady habits (the American) would be more of a hindrance than a help.

I assume there are good solid reasons why these are the best people to help Ramanya. Maybe let us know what they are.

John Frain said...

The Queen has hammered us in flash contests about choosing the correct word, and here we get to see it in action. Such a subtle difference between "think" and "believe" in the opening paragraph, but what a huge impact the correct word makes. So nice to see it in action and understand!

If the story has an antagonist, and that paragraph gets added to the query, I should think you need to eliminate one of your existing paragraphs. Perhaps you can combine, and give a better understanding of how your American professor fits into the story.

Good luck, OP. To earn your chops in this writing world, you have to overcome a new challenge around every turn.

Kregger said...

By the time the ex-pat showed up, I thought--character soup, no plot and vague.
You could substitute the "Golden Rod of Power" and the "Cloak of Indivisibility" for the last two characters and this query would read the same. The a reader I do not know your characters like you do. They don't give me warm and fuzzy feelings or a pain like a stiletto in the kidney with a twist before it is removed. I'm sure they're important elements to your story, but do not illuminate the plot.
And a plot moving forward is a story...unless you're one of those literary types...
I'll just leave it at that.
Good luck.

Rush Leaming said...

Great feedback all. Very useful. I'll continue to work on it

As far as word count , my personal preference is for leaner, shorter novels, but there are places I could certainly expand.

Thanks --OP

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Something in this query enticed the Shark out of the depths to post another example here.

Expat Cliché made me smile. Yeah, what does he have to do with it all and why should he care to get involved. It sounds like he'd rather avoid everything. And who is the mysterious man? Is he one of the three or a fourth?

I don't really understand what is at stake and to whom it is important. Go home, find family, avoid what.

The premise is enticing. 48 hours in Bangkok.

Theresa Milstein said...

Query Shark, you outdid yourself here. Very thorough critique. Worth the wait!

Literary Thriller almost seems to be an oxymoron.

Sounds like a multiple POV novel, which should probably concentrate on one character in the query. Seems to me the character in the first paragraph has the most to lose. Go with him. And give us specifics. From the first paragraph, it seems the story has potential.

I agree 52k is too short. I wonder if the research on the locations isn't there. With that word count, I assume the scenes aren't grounded in detail. If it's not setting, then perhaps one or more characters doesn't have the depth they need.

Good luck!

Laina said...

While we're on the subject of word choice, perhaps anorexic isn't the best one to mean "scarce". People can be anorexic without being thin, and can indeed die before becoming thin. Using mental illnesses as descriptors of non-mentally ill things is not something I think we need to be doing, hoenstly. Made me wince to see that!

I agree it feels disconnected that you described 3 characters that are unrelated, then suddenly they're together. Why do the other two care about Ramanya?

ACFranklin said...

Hello. Up to this point in time, I've just lurked, but this is a grammatical error that makes me cringe, especially when I do it.

"...uses booze and sex to try and forget..." should be " try *to* forget..."

It's an easy mistake to miss, even when you say it out loud. English speakers are sloppy that way.


Rush Leaming said...

Thanks. Yes I felt this was too long. Im going to go in a bit starker direction next time . In the middle of revising and expanding the whole book. Will try again afterwards

bestsellerstory said...

Great analysis.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

This latest revision makes me wonder if it might work to briefly break a rule or two here, just in the first couple sentences. It seems like the driving force of your story is an emotional one, so maybe you're focusing a little too much on plot (weird, I know).

You might want to try something more like...
Ramanya's mother used to read him stories for hours and hours when he was too sick to sleep. That's why, despite the price on his head and the massive mountain range between them, he has to return home. His mother is dying, and he'll be damned if a military stand-off and a few checkpoints are going to keep him from saying goodbye.

I'm guessing a bit here, and obviously you'd want to clean that up, but it gets to the heart of the matter quickly. If my mom was dying, you bet I'd sneak through a mountain range to say goodbye. This leaves out some important things - the dream, the red-silk shirt - that might matter in the novel. They just don't necessarily fit in the query.