Sunday, January 21, 2018



1) This novel has a lot of action, but it's about the complications and mounting tension in the main character's life. You mention a thriller has larger stakes than one person's life, so how would you categorize this? Suspense?

2) The book has 3 acts with tension and stakes building. This query is about the final conflict. Is that okay?

3) I feel the current title would grab attention, but is it a bad idea to tip my hand? Other titles I've considered include DISARMING THE BEASTS, and PREDATOR'S TITHE.

4) While the protagonist is a woman, I don't consider this is chick lit. Cassie is an emotionally damaged, socially awkward Jason Bourne with a medical degree. Should I query chick lit agents or stick to thriller/suspense (or however you categorize this?)

Dear QueryShark:

Cassiopeia Gordon (Cassie) has spent 12 years trying to erase one night—not easy for someone with a photographic memory. When she was an 18-year-old virgin, her drill instructor savagely raped her.

One thing that just drives me bonkers is listing a character's name and then her (nickname) in parentheses. This is not a newspaper article or a police report. Call your character what you call her in the book: Cassie Gordon.

A close second on the bonkers list is putting a character's age in parens for the same reasons. You avoided that here, thankfully.

And I'm not sure why you mention her memory; it doesn't seem to be a plot point later on. And no one needs a photographic memory to have problems forgetting a savage rape. 

Determined she'll never be victimized again, Cassie has trained relentlessly in hand-to-hand combat, while becoming a trauma surgeon to repair bodily damage. Those skills and a facility for language have led her to join an elite Marine strike force where she proudly keeps her team members safe.

This is a total hodge podge of information. She's trained relentlessly so she'll never be a victim, and then becomes a trauma surgeon to repair bodily damage? Whose body? Trauma surgeons by definition are repairing damage. You don't need to say both things.

She's a member of an elite Marine strike force and a trauma surgeon? Really? Where did she find the time? Oh and she's got a facility for languages. And let's not forget the photographic memory.

You're making the classic mistake here of creating a caricature, not a character. A character's flaws are what make her interesting, not the fact that she's superwoman in camouflage scrubs.

A more interesting story is how someone who ISN'T Superwoman responds to an attack and seeks vengeance.

Now the CIA has recruited Cassie to join its operation. Onboarding will happen at headquarters near where Cassie's best friend lives. Not only is Melody the closest thing Cassie has to family, she's also the only person who really understands Cassie's past. A fellow victim of the serial rapist drill sergeant, Melody has channeled her experience into helping others as a rape counselor.

When a series of Melody's clients reveal their attackers admitted—even bragged about—the number of women they've raped, Melody can take no more. If the system won't stop these monsters, Melody decides she must.

Why won't the system stop these monsters? It's not as though rape is the unspoken-of crime it was 40 years ago. Women and men report rapes all the time. What makes these beyond the law?

Though equally sickened by the revelations, Cassie recognizes the dangers of Melody's plan and tries to dissuade her—unsuccessfully.

What's Melody's plan? Kill the rapists. I'm very much in favor of that. Slowly too. This is where the book would get much more interesting: how these lovely ladies take their revenge, and what it costs them (ie what's at stake for them.)  You can't brutalize the brutalizer without being yourself becoming a brutalizer. 

If Cassie doesn't act, the only sister she's ever had could be imprisoned for the rest of her life. To save Melody, Cassie will have to break the law and risk losing everything — her medical license, CIA career, her freedom, and possibly the only man she's ever loved.

Melody will get imprisoned only if she's caught, right? So Cassie's dilemma is whether to report her, try to stop her, or do nothing. You need to be specific about what's at stake here for each of those choices. Breaking the law brings possible prison. Losing her medical license, her career? What's the down side of that for her? 

You've created a too-good-to-true character and set her up as an avenging angel. This is textbook first novel syndrome. A character has to have some flaws to be interesting. She has to make tough choices. Maybe even wrong choices. There's really nothing better than someone doing good for the wrong reason and getting in trouble for it.

Also, the villains here have zero nuance. Thus they are uninteresting. This is why it's very very hard to write compellingly about child abuse and sex crimes. The perpetrators aren't all that interesting; they're just ugly souls I don't want to spend much time with. 

It tells you something that a lot of people thought Omar the rip and run artist was the most interesting character on The Wire; that Satan is more interesting than Christ in Milton's Paradises Lost and Found.

What makes both Omar and Satan interesting is the choices they make. We have sympathy for them. We see their flaws. We know they're doing the wrong thing, but we see why they are doing it.

DISMEMBRISTS is a 95,000 word adult thriller exploring themes of trauma, vulnerability, friendship, betrayal, sacrifice, and love.

Mentioning themes in a query is not the way to go. Tell me about the story.

This is my first novel, though I've spent 20+ years conceiving and writing advertising. After reading so many accounts of campus and military sexual assault, I had to write a response. This is it, in time for the #MeToo movement.

Even if I sold this book tomorrow, it wouldn't be on the shelves for another 12-18 months. Don't put anything in your query that will make me think it's going to be outdated any time soon. And sorry to say, what's of interest to people in social media today doesn't always last. Do I hope we continue to talk about sexual violence? Damn straight I do. But don't bet your query on it.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

1) This novel has a lot of action, but it's about the complications and mounting tension in the main character's life. You mention a thriller has larger stakes than one person's life, so how would you categorize this? Suspense?

Suspense novels have an uncertain outcome. Generally in a thriller we know Our Hero will prevail, we just don't know how, or at what cost. In suspense novels we're not so sure of the outcome. This is neither a thriller nor a novel of suspense. It's a crime novel.

2) The book has 3 acts with tension and stakes building. This query is about the final conflict. Is that okay?

No. You want to tell me about what happens in the first act. If you're querying with what happens at the end of the book, it's sign that you don't have enough plot or enough at stake. 

3) I feel the current title would grab attention, but is it a bad idea to tip my hand? Other titles I've considered include DISARMING THE BEASTS, and PREDATOR'S TITHE.

Don't worry about the title. But yes, the one you have makes the book sound like a horror novel. That said, I don't even consider the title when I'm looking at a query. This isn't even close to the terrible titles that actual clients have chosen for their mss (yes, they got changed!)

4) While the protagonist is a woman, I don't consider this is chick lit. Cassie is an emotionally damaged, socially awkward Jason Bourne with a medical degree. Should I query chick lit agents or stick to thriller/suspense (or however you categorize this?)

This literally made me laugh out loud. You don't know what chick lit is do you? It's ok if you don't, it's a term that has to be learned like everything else. It's not a character flaw to not know everything. But chick lit is a term for  girl comes to city for job, finds love, battles love and bad boyfriends. In other words, books where the main character is the polar opposite of Jason Bourne.

Before you query anyone I'd suggest revising both the query and making sure the novel has enough plot, and three dimensional characters. I think you've got a problem there that this query illuminates.


nightsmusic said...

Right now, the way your query is written, you have a Mary Sue as a main character. She's a surgeon, she's a marine, she has a photographic memory, she's uber skilled in hand-to-hand combat. Other than her rape, she's got it all going on. She's too good to be true! Because she does, I just don't care about her. I need something to be sympathetic about her. Nothing really drew me in to be interested in your main character. Her friend comes across as more interesting than she is. Perhaps she should be the main character...

J.A. Haigh said...

To be honest, by the end of the query, I wasn't sure if your main protagonist was Cassie or Melody. It might be more engaging to follow one more closely. It also felt like a fair portion of backstory. Maybe more of a focus on the immediate action?

Daisy Bateman said...

This might just be me, but I’m super over stories where the strength of the strong female character is rooted in being a victim of sexual violence. Not that it’s a bad idea in and of itself, but it comes up so often that I’ve come to view it as a way of limiting and diminishing her personal agency. I don’t know if this is helpful, since it’s obviously an important part of your story, but it might be worthwhile to look at it as a trope and explain why what you’re doing is different.

E.Maree said...

I love genre fiction that shows assault survivors in a position of strength and progress, so I'm usually the prime target for books like this.

But you totally lost me when she went from learning self-defense (reasonable) then becoming a trauma surgeon (also good and very cool) and then an elite Marine (wait what HOW) and then the CIA (WHAT I'M SO LOST).

I clicked more with Melody since her survival path felt more realistic and achievable, and I agree with the other commenters that she seems to drive the story much more than Cassie.

Also, oooft, the comment about "I don't consider this chick lit"... I appreciate your honesty, truly, but that was painful to read. It shows a lot of unfamiliarity with genre fic like this, especially the work currently being created by women writers. And the social awkwardness with Cassie that you mention in this same paragraph doesn't ring true to the actual query at all.

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WritesMyLife said...

*sigh* believe it or not, one can become a physician AND Marine. After all, Cassie did get raped by her drill instructor. She could havd been in NROTC training in either high school, college, or both. In exchange for classes, she trains for the Navy, which the Marines is under. 12 years is plenty of time to achieve both or simply be hired by the Navy/Marines as a physician tending to servicemembers and their families. Plus, Cassie could apply for the CIA since she fits the requirements and has a good chance of being hired. I would've just stated what she currently does rather than going through her history in the query. The story is centered around Cassie, Melody and what each considers justice.

There are plenty horror stories of how military service members get away with rape to fuel Melody's anger, especially since there is no mention that their drill sergeant is serving/served time. Melody's counseling job could be a cover to find rapists who have gotten away with what they've done and kill them!

I suggest keeping Cassie as the protagonist and turning Melody into the antagonist since she wants to take the law into her own hands. Cassie lost the Melody she knew a long time ago, maybe even after the rape and it's taken Cassie this long to come to this revelation.

Anonymous said...

I just want to say I enjoyed the post (and the query) and hope you keep working on it! It sounds like an exciting book, and even though I don't have any additional suggestions beyond what Ms. Reid said, I wanted to say something supportive.

Diana said...

While I actually don't doubt someone can become a trauma surgeon and a hand-to-hand combat expert and work for an elite marine strike force and then be tapped for the CIA, I do think you're laying on your character's specialness way too thick, in ways that don't actually matter to the plot you've laid out and only serve to bog down your query. Here's my quick and dirty take on a query where she's still clearly very skilled, but doesn't make readers immediately think she's a mary sue:

"When 18 year old Cassie Gordon is savagely raped by her drill instructor, she swears she will never be victimized again. She copes the only way she knows how: by throwing herself relentlessly at her goal, and excelling. Now, 12 years later, Cassie is a trauma surgeon for an elite marine strike force and an expert hand-to-hand combatant. Between her skills and the team members she's busy keeping safe, she can almost forget the trauma from so long ago.

But when the CIA recruits Cassie and sends her for training at her best friend Melody's home town, Cassie must reckon with her past in a way she never expected. Melody, a survivor of the same drill sargeant, has spent the past decade as a rape counselor. Sick of a system that repeatedly allows serial rapists to go free, she has decided to take matters into her own hands. Cassie can't dissuade Melody from her dangerous path, so she faces a choice - betray the woman she considers a sister, or risk everything in the stable life she's built to keep Melody from going to jail."

Unknown said...

My main concern is less the accuracy of how the military handles sexual assault than it being used as a cheap plot point.

The military is rife with sexual assault, and to the best of my knowledge it's still handled internally. That means whoever reports is going to have their character torn apart, put through hell, and most likely end up with an early discharge or at the very least a letter in his/her record labeling them as a trouble maker. The perpetrator? Moved to a different post, MAYBE a slap on the wrist, and they go on their merry way. The VA has resources for victims of military sexual assault, but the military itself does nothing. I spoke with a JAG when I was a witness in a court martial (unrelated to SA) and how he told me victims were treated has burned itself into my brain. When I first enlisted is when the sexual assault scandals went up to the general in charge of the Army and the Air Force Academy was notorious for rape being part of a female cadet's "training."

Be very thorough and diligent in research to avoid anachronisms (veterans read books) and please understand that some of us take sexual assault, especially sexual assault experienced in military service, very seriously.

Lex said...

I get the awful feeling that a man wrote this book and is using a gruesome rape as nothing more than a plot device. Hard pass.

MackAttack said...

I love your perspective on that, and I agree! With this character in particular, it was her drill instructor, so she was already on the military path. That suggests she was already a pretty strong, empowered lady, especially since she chose the Marines. She didn't really need rape as a motivation for her training when her already-chosen path as a Marine would already cover that. The way I see it, Cassie was already doing her thing, getting her groove on, when her drill instructor almost derailed the plan. But Cassie kept going. Acted like nothing happened. Sank herself into her military career. Became the best of the best because that's what she had always intended to do in the first place. Perhaps the rape influenced her slightly, gave her a little more steel in her determination. But this was always who she was. That also creates a contrast between her and her bff. Cassie just wants to forget it. Melody literally spends all day/every day surrounded by rape and rape victims. Feels like there should be some drama there between their different approaches, maybe that's why she doesn't live close to basically her sister. Maybe that's an obstacle to Cassie's choice on what to do. I think it's fairly clear you intend Cassie to help Melody get away with murder. Maybe she resists that choice not out of any moral qualms for herself, but because she just doesn't want anything to do with rapists or her past.

MackAttack said...

For what it's worth, I think Predator's Tithe is really evocative as a title, it grabbed me better than the other two and has a lot of interesting connotations. I feel like the religious overtones to the word tithe might make it a little out of place though, but maybe the rest of the story supports it better. I also liked Dismembrists, but in my head I'm picturing the Decemberists as a Heavy Metal band.