Saturday, February 6, 2016


Dear Query Shark,

Blind Trust (fact-based fiction) is complete at 83,000 words.

Right from the start my eyes are rolling. "Fact based fiction" is a HUGE red flag. Limiting your story to what really happened is a choke chain on creativity. If you want to write something factual, it's called narrative non-fiction. If you want to write fiction, don't let facts get in the way. (Of course, you can't make it unbelievable either--that's the art of writing)

There were all those questions from Arthur… damn him and his questions! Life was grand for Ted and Ellen Rivers before their forty year old daughter brought home her latest husband, Arthur Ferguson. Arthur’s ambitious inquisition threatens to upset the family’s blueprint for success. They had more money than they knew what to do with... and they had Max Custer. Ted and Ellen were intoxicated by Max’s astonishing brilliance. He was awash in red carpet clients and espoused that he and his global staff of experts could insure their newly found prosperity would keep the whole family well off for generations to come.

The first two sentences are in the wrong order. Unless we know who Arthur is, the first sentence doesn't make much sense. You're also awash in words here: Ted and Ellen's daughter brings home a new husband who says he can keep them rich for generations to come. Your paragraph has 103 words; my sentence has 20 and is easier to understand.

Arthur dares to challenge the sophisticated professional. He obviously doesn’t appreciate that Max is the expert. Surely, Max must have been an altar boy or maybe even a boy scout before he became an international finance wizard. Arthur claimed to be an accountant, but was for some nebulous reason between jobs. The innocent but colorful lives of Ted and Ellen Rivers are changed forever when Arthur launches his own investigation to expose Max Custer’s skeletons.

At this point I"m too confused to keep reading. I have no idea who the main character is. I have no idea what's at stake. I have no sense of where or when the story takes place.

Countless unsuspecting victims have been similarly duped. A writer friend of mine was also seduced by one of these financial experts. The proceeds from her best seller vanished. Suddenly she was broke. She described it as being mugged, or even T-boned, but was too ashamed to write the story. This eye opening revelation should appeal to a broad audience, because nearly everybody knows somebody that has experienced a similar humiliation.

None of that belongs in a query for a novel.

This is Ted and Ellen’s story; a dramatized version of actual events. I personally researched every intimate detail of the ominous scheme Max hatched. In fact, I was there. Names were changed, but actual documents and much of the ostentatious verbiage and techniques that were used by Max (and his “global staff of experts”) is included. Ted and Ellen were from another generation and had more fight and resilience than anyone expected. While not victorious, they were not entirely defeated either.

It sounds like you're writing an expose here, not a novel. I see this a lot from people (and friends of people) who have been victimized by some scurrilous ne'er do well.

What you're forgetting is that the story must come first. Accuracy in relating events and dialogue is not something I give a whit about in novels. I care about plot and story.

Blind Trust is rife with events and details so bizarre it is sometimes hard to believe they are really true.

You know that truism "truth is stranger than fiction?" There's a reason it's a truism, and this is it. What you don't realize is this is NOT a selling point for a novel. When I read a novel I want to believe it's true, not think it isn't. That's why you get to make stuff up: so it sounds authentic.

I realize this seems odd, particularly to people enamoured of facts and truth, but often the things that sound most authentic and illuminate points of darkness are in fact made up.

After returning from Vietnam, I earned a B.S. in Business Administration and have had an extensive career in corporate and forensic accounting. I have been published in the Birmingham Business Journal, The Smoking Poet and CJ’s Writer’s Blog. I live in Wisconsin with my wife and two dogs in our ongoing 1890 farmhouse restoration.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

This is a mess. Are you sure you read the QueryShark archives?

Who is the main character? What does s/he want? What's keeping him from getting it?
If you are intent on telling this story as a warning to others, you might think about a different form. Murder mysteries are seldom seen as warnings not to be killed.

Dupe novels seldom keep people from being duped.

If you want to write a story using these events as your inspiration, don't stay wedded to the facts. It's fiction, you get to make it all up.


Melissa said...

It sounds like the main couple were caught up in a Bernie Madoff-type ponzie scheme. The problem with telling this is it's already been told and we know the stories of the families who were caught up in such things. That's why you can't write this book as based on facts, you're five years too late. Books have been written, ABC has done a miniseries, it's done. What your challenge is, is how to take this story and find a new angle and truly make it fiction.

Gone Girl could've been another story about a man killing his wife and trying to get away with it. But instead the author asked what if there's more than that, more than what we already know? What followed was far more interesting. So what's your twist? Is the married couple being fleeced actually running their own powdered protein/cocaine cartel and Max was their money manager and caught on so they set him up to look like a criminal? Go beyond what we already know about these situations and wow us.

Colin Smith said...

This strikes me as a good example of why you put all your housekeeping at the bottom. You don't want an agent rolling eyes before you start describing what the book's about!

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Max Custer is a great name for a villain. Ted and Ellen (and Arthur?) are not great names for protagonists. I know it's a little thing and it's shallow, but it makes it more obvious you're basing this off of real people (I'll call Mark... Ted, that's a good name!).

I've seen 'based off a true story' work for movies. I've rarely seen it work for books. I think it's because we know that movies will make things seem more dramatic than they really were. If I want to read a book about a real-life scam, I'll read a nonfiction book. Or I'll check the newspapers (it'll be snappy, it'll be short, and then it'll be over).

I would also be concerned that you're too close to the story. If this happened to friends of yours, or even friends of friends, I'm worried that Max Custer is going to be a one-dimensional villain.

It sounds like one of your big advantages here is the inside knowledge of how a scam like this works. That could be interesting. It's also the part you want to leave out of the query.

Actually, let me revise one of my earlier statements: I would absolutely read a novel about a based-on-a-true-money-scam-story if it was a comedy. I don't know if your story leans more toward the dramatic, but if there's humor in the story, maybe let that shine. Or if it's a suspenseful story, focus a little more on the suspense.

nightsmusic said...

The only characters here that have a modicum of personal character are Arthur and Max. From your query, I get the impression that Arthur is curious and Max is a scam artist. Is Arthur likeable? Is Max charming? How does one draw them all in and the other ferret out the problem? This query as written is dry, confusing and doesn't draw me into anything. I agree with Melissa. This story has already been written. I don't need to read it again. That and the way the query is written leads me to think this is going to be a whiney, poor-me-I-got-ripped-off story and that's not unique. It's also pretty boring. You need something that's going to make the agent go WOW! I need to read this! This would only have them scratching their heads as evidenced by Janet's comments.

Read some true crime novels. Larson, Rule, Capote. They weren't involved in their recounting, and you shouldn't be either, even though you were.

A. R. Braun said...

A lot of writers base their first novel--and even the characters--on real events and people. That's why seasoned novelists say to put your first book under the bed and write another.

Anonymous said...

I think anything can make a great story with the right telling. This certainly could be the foundation for one. I think that's what the author needs to keep in mind. This particular incident isn't something like the battle of Gettysburg where there are hundreds of experts and thousands of amateur sleuths who know every detail. You have a lot of latitude.

I'd leave out all the personal stuff until it gets to the housekeeping and mention you're a forensic accountant, which sounds kind of cool in itself. Yes, I know what they are, I'm getting ready to hire one.

You definitely need to work on the query. You may need to work on the book. I don't know. Some people write about fishing and do fairly well. Moby Dick, The Old Man And The Sea, A River Runs Through It. It's all in how you tell the story.

Elissa M said...

It's my feeling that when readers want truth, that's exactly what they want. Not, "Truth based fiction."

Part of Seabiscuit's popularity was because it was a true story about a real horse and the real people and events surrounding him, not because it was a good horse story. (Also, it was extremely well written, but that's a given). It wasn't fiction, truth-based or otherwise. It was meticulously researched narrative nonfiction.

As Janet said, "Based on a true story" is more the realm of film and television.

I think a novel about a con-artist and his marks could be good, assuming it has a hook that makes it stand out from the crowd. Being based on a true story isn't a hook, it's stale bread even the ducks won't eat without something to spice it up.

What's the spice in your novel? If the "truth" is all you have going for it, you might need to consider a rewrite before you query.

Irene Troy said...

I've written a memoir and also write other non-fiction. This query has the feel of someone attempting to write a fictionalized account of something that happened to them or someone they know well. (As Janet noted) I've seen this a lot among members of my online writers group. Here's the thing: if you want to share the story of what happened to you or someone you know, then tell that story. Tell it as non-fiction. Don't try to turn it into fiction, it just doesn't work well.

Often people do this because they fear some sort of retribution by the "villain" in the story. The writer thinks "if I fictionalize the story, the bad guy(s) won't recognize himself and I'll be safe." WRONG! People who scam others, are often extremely paranoid themselves. A fictionalized account won't keep you safe from suit or other action. In fact, it just might things worse. Of-course, this assumes the piece even finds its way into print. A hybrid of fiction and non-fiction will just leave everyone confused and lost - not a good way to entice readers or agents.

Lemur said...

Paragraph 2 (paragraph 1 only included title and word count) had so many characters that it was Name Soup.

Very simple questions - WHO is the protagonist? What is the challenge? What does s/he gain/sacrifice?

This is such basic Shark territory that I'm astonished people aren't READING THE ARCHIVES. Seriously people? Our beloved Shark is offering her wisdom and here we are once again offering the same old Chum?

This is not rocket science. If you don't know the answers to this you probably don't have a book, and certainly not a novel.

If I must reiterate:

WHO is your protagonist?
WHAT is their dilema?
WHAT do they lose if they make one choice? What do they gain?
WHAT do they lose if they make the other choice? What do they gain?

Amd seriously...we don't care if your setting is Nebraska if it could just as well be Detroit or London or Krumville, NY (Yes that really exists). We don't care if your story could happen equally in Bangladesh 1562 or Poland 1927. The settings SHOULD make the story different, or else the setting just doesn't matter(which is a problem).

What else? We don't care if you won the 5th grade poetry contest. We don't care if your degree in philosophy lets you determine who should win mind and heart unless you can SHOW it in your writing.

Please, please, O please, read more than 10 (make that 50, make that 100...oh darn just make it some huge number) of novels before you attempt to write one.

Do I think I'm the EXPERT? Heck no! That's why I'm reading Janet's site and she's not reading mine.

But really folks, if you actually READ here, actually GLEAN the useful information, you shouldn't be writing like an absolute schmuck.

I'm a self published writer and for better or worse (and potentially worse) I've decided not to go with trad publishing. At the same time one of the REASONS I read this amazing site is because Janet's advice is relevant for anyone writing a book, not just someone writing a query.

Disrespect at your peril. Get with the program and READ the darn archives (besides, you'll die laughing both from querys and comments -). You'll also come up inspired, enlivened and invigorated by some of the fantabulous writers who've made it through.

Laina said...

Is someone telling people to use phrases like this? I got a review request for "factual fiction" the other week.

abnormalalien said...

Partial agreement with the others on this one: maybe it's a perfectly good story, but your description of it scares me. My mom loves those dramatized “based on the truth” stories that they flaunt all over TV nowadays. I hate them; I get a whiff of that and I'm rolling my eyes so bad people nearby get dejavu of the sarcastic friend from their teen years. I actually really like the humorous voice in paragraph 2 but if you trigger my (probably bad) attitude, I won't care if you're funny. In fact it might even antagonize me into thinking “Oh, great a guy who thinks he's funny.”

If you really need to tell us about how this is a (sort of) true story based around your writer friend who's too embarrassed to write about it herself, maybe put it in the bio paragraph at the end. Get me interested in the story then say something like: “I've been a forensic accountant for X years and was inspired by a friend's tale of...blah blah...devious scheme.” Then I might think, ok whatever this could be one of those dramatized stories but I'm already curious enough to want to read it anyway.

A minor point, but, I agree with Bethany; your naming choices don't work for me. Max, Ted, Ellen, Arthur. I've got no memory for who's who at this point except maybe the girl who I think you said was the duped guy's wife. Could be that they prompt me to think of 40-50 year old upper-class Americans going through a mid-life crisis. You know, the slightly graying hair, trade in for a sport's car, golfing on the weekends, the wife might even be a bit snobbish. (Crap reread, their daughter is 40 so they must be in their 60s. Even worse they're retirement age and possibly more rich and snooty than I thought.) I'm betting that's not really how they are but I think you see where I'm going here. You don't want the reader getting the wrong attitude towards the characters. And since this is actually about your friends, you probably even want me to like them/feel bad for them.