Sunday, January 28, 2018

#296-Revised once

Dear QueryShark:

Some thing is watching Earth and has been doing so since the dawn of civilization.

Alexander Price, commander of the first manned mission to Mars, spots a black-tentacled probe take off as he takes his first steps. No one else saw it and no one believes him.

Back on Earth, Alexander is outcast and mocked for his wild claims by NASA. During the day he obsesses about what aliens might be plotting and why NASA is hiding the data. Every night he dreams of fanged tentacles ripping him apart. 

 The way you're using outcast here is jarring. You probably mean shunned, or cast out. 
You're also missing the connective tissue between what he saw and why it's a "wild claim".  If he's the commander of the first manned mission to Mars, anything he sees wouldn't be a wild claim, cause no one's been there before to establish any other norm.

In other words,  if you're the first person to come to my house and you then tell people I have cats rollerskating through my kitchen, who's to say that's a wild claim; no one has been here before to establish the cat's mode of transport.

Determined to prove he isn’t crazy and find out the truth about the probe, he steals data from NASA, risking jail time and the little dignity he has left. Deep in the stolen data, he discovers aliens used the probe to watch him land on Mars and they live out in the Alpha Centauri system.

He blackmails his way onto an interstellar mission to Alpha Centauri, but by the time he gets there, eighty years would have passed on Earth. If he goes, he has to leave everything and everyone behind.

If he blackmails his way on to the mission, he's on the mission. When you follow up with "if he goes" he's NOT on the mission. In other words, these two sentences are in the wrong order.  

This is the kind of problem in a query that gives me real pause about requesting pages. If I see this kind of writing here, I'm confident I'll see it in your novel.  

The reason you slave over the writing in your query is to give me confidence you've slaved over the writing in your novel.   

The dark mystery he wants to solve on Alpha Centauri’s planets may provide personal redemption and vindication for abandoning his life on Earth. Or he may have pursued a ghost he only imagined in the numbers and on Mars. 

What dark mystery? This is too abstract to be interesting.

THE FINAL JUDGMENT is a 90,000-word SF novel with series potential. This first contact story will appeal to fans of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s, Children of Time and Emma Newman’s SF mystery, Planetfall.

This isn't specific enough to be interesting yet. First contact stories need to be about more than first contact.  You're building on and adding to the genre, not just retelling storylines we've heard before.

Consider the Amazon description of PlanetFall

Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.

More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony's 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.

Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.

The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart...

Can you see how the specifics used here make the novel enticing?

I drew on my experience working with narcissists-in-denial to create my characters. I’m a surgeon and use my scientific background to weave real science into stories.

I like the line about narcissists, but who's a narcissist in this story?

Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is a lot better than the initial query but it still doesn't give me a sense of what the story is really about.

I’ve worked and re-worked the pasted query below. It’s on the long side but I’m not sure what to cut.

Dear QueryShark:
Before Commander Alexander Price’s foot sinks into Martian soil, he spots a black-tentacled probe take off from the planet’s surface. Samantha and Harriet, the other two astronauts on the first manned mission to Mars, didn't see it, and no one back home believes him.

This  entire query clocks in at 339 words so it's not completely outside the ballpark for word count.  That said, it can use some tightening. How do you tighten a query?

First, simple declarative sentences are your secret weapon.

Consider: Alexander Price, commander of the first manned mission to Mars, spots a a black-tentacled probe take off from the surface as he and the other two astronauts arrive. Neither of them see it . No one believes him.

44 to 39 words. Not much BUT you've tightened the narrative here in two ways. You've simplified the sentences and reduced the word count.

Alexander is ostracized and mocked for his wild claims by NASA but not Samantha, who carried his unconscious body through a storm on Mars, risking her own life because she loves him. During the day he obsesses about what aliens might be plotting and why NASA is hiding the data. Every night he dreams of fanged tentacles ripping him apart. He turns to Sam, and not drugs, to provide refuge from his nightly demons. 

He's not ostracized. Ostracized means to exclude someone. It's clear Samantha isn't excluding him.

You're also awash in details. Too many details overwhelm the query.What do we need to know here?
We need to know that NASA mocks him. That's ALL we need to know.

74 words down to 11.

Determined to prove he isn’t crazy and find out the truth, he steals data from NASA’s new administrator, Harriet, risking jail time and the little dignity he has left.

Unless Harriet is on Mars, you've got a location problem here. When last we saw Alex, he was on Mars.

Did you notice that you use the full name  of your main character, the man, but only first names for the lady characters? In case you're wondering, that's something I notice, and draw conclusions about. Those conclusions are not in your favor.

NASA's data show some thing is watching Earth, and it lives in the Alpha Centauri system. Harriet realises the implications of the data, forgives Alexander and asks him to join her on an interstellar mission. By the time he gets there, eighty years would have passed on Earth. Samantha, the love of his life, will be long dead.

Here's where I stop reading. The logic of this plot eludes me. 
What does the black-tentacled probe on Mars have to do with anything here?
Why is Harriet in possession of data that only one man seems able to interpret. From what I know about NASA, there are some pretty smart people working there, and it boggles my mind to imagine that anyone would have data that no one else has seen. NASA is not a solitary sport.

Why would the administrator of NASA be on an interstellar flight at all? Isn't that why there are astronauts?

The folks who read science fiction are pretty picky about facts. They'll give you the big leap of imagination (interstellar flight for people is a reality) but the little facts (like how NASA works) have to be right.

The dark mystery he wants to solve on Alpha Centauri’s planets may provide personal redemption and vindication for abandoning Samantha. Or he may have pursued a ghost he only imagined in the stolen data.

This is the gist of the plot I think. What's the mystery on Alpha Centauri?

Also, "abandoning Samantha" makes me kind of crazy. If Alexander's job is being an astronaut, and he's asked to go on a mission, he's not abandoning Samantha, he's doing his job. Clearly there are some sacrifices (given she'll be dead when he comes back, IF he gets back) but it's not like he's leaving her for the lady next door.

THE FINAL JUDGMENT is a 90,000-word SF novel with series potential. This first contact story will appeal to fans of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s, Children of Time and Emma Newman’s SF mystery, Planetfall.

I drew on my experience working with narcissists-in-denial to create my characters.

This is the best line in the query and makes me think you probably have a pretty good sense of humor. 

I, on the other hand, am a down-to-Earth omnipotent surgeon. I use my scientific background to weave real science into stories.

(Insert personalisation for the agent)
Don't waste your time on trying to personalize queries. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Kind Regards,

The problem isn't word count. The problem is you haven't told me about the plot. You've told me about Alexander who seems entirely too drippy to be an astronaut.

It seems to me that the plot is what are those guys on Alpha Centauri up to, how do we find out, and do we need to interfere?

What you've got here is the set up, but not the plot.

In answer to your question, here's how to cut words from a query:

1. Use simple declarative sentences to build the foundation of your query.
2. Talk about the ONE thing we need to know about the book.
3. Add detail only when needed for clarity.


Toshi said...

Long time Lurker, first-time commenter.

I work at the aforementioned agency.* As it's not mentioned otherwise, I can only assume that the story takes place in a contemporary age where just seeing a probe that no one else can verify is not enough to get more than a sideways glance.

If such data did come down, and the probe itself is verifiable, then there are other researchers on Earth (not astronauts) as well as the ones in space (astronauts) with access to that data. Pre-processed data is not available to the public immediately, but it also isn't a deep secret restricted to a single researcher. Unless he's roaming the halls, bursting into Press Conferences and wrecking labs, he's probably not going to be ostracized. Finally, stealing Data if you have no physical security and IT clearance is extremely difficult. Raw data is not going to be small enough to just dump onto an external drive, and you won't have the processing power outside of a major farm.

Also, not exactly related to Agency Operations, but they are extremely protective of their public persona. The Agency as it is now is very interactive with the public, and they pay close attention to the way they're portrayed. You'll want to have that be accurate or, failing that, not a borderline shadow agency suppressing data because it doesn't fit a narrative.

You can try getting a technical advisor to give it a once over as there are plenty of active and retired Agency Employees who are also writers. Or, you can try communicating with NASA directly and asking for guidance since you are using their name. Or, create some private, fictional shadow agency that also deals with space, ala Evil SpaceX, that has a spacecraft that can be stolen without the assistance of a dozen people on the ground, a large physical launch space, and multiple people on board and the lack of process that would allow that to happen.

*This was not official messaging from NASA, which is a thing I have to say whenever I reference my job.

Theresa B (of Nebulopathy) said...

Thank you for bringing up the "only men have last names" problem. This query lost me in the first paragraph for just that reason. Then I kept reading anyhow and had the thought that there are far more than three people working at NASA at any given time.

Might I suggest Col. Chris Hadfield's latest autobiography for the writer to get a taste of how NASA works? It's a great read and makes a interesting study of how focused one needs to be in order to get to that point. As an example, when he was nine years old he saw the moon landing on TV and decided to become an astronaut. From that point on he made sure he had the right classes and training to get there.

(As far as I can remember, when I was nine years old I wanted to be a horse. There's a reason I'm not an astronaut.)

nightsmusic said...

Reading through the first time minus Le Sharque's comments, this is either a SF with romantic elements or Romance with a SF background. The first thing I thought reading through is, this writer needs to pick one thing, one genre. There's a Lot of SF out there with romantic elements, but the SF part of the story takes center stage at almost all times. You're about 50/50 on this and I'm not sure you'd attract a large audience in either genre with that unless your SF facts are completely spot on and the Romance is amazing.

Pick one and write the query and more importantly, the story, based on that. I agree with Janet that right now, there's no plot. There's two different stories that somehow are supposed to jive, but they don't.

And an aside to Theresa B, I too wanted to be a horse when I was 9. :)

E.Maree said...

This is definitely ringing some "manic pixie dream girl" alarms for me with Samantha falling madly in love with her colleague (jeopardising a job she's worked *how* many years for?), and then Harriet appears to believe in Chris and also totally risk her job by giving Chris data he wouldn't otherwise have access for.

That's a two ladies throwing away their careers to help one bloke. And it's *easy*, it's convenient, which a plot should rarely be. The solutions to your protagonist's problems shouldn't be delivered to him on a plate by secondary characters.

But mostly, what bothers me about this query is...why doesn't Harriet just go up there? It solves the problem since she has the data she needs, she's clearly qualified to go up there ("join her on an interstellar mission"), and it's a simple fix to abandoned Samantha problem. Why bother bringing Chris when it puts him in such a bad place? Let the lady handle it on her own.

gypsyharper said...

I also note that Samantha is also apparently a qualified astronaut, having been on the first mission where he saw the probe. I don't really understand why Harriet (who is now an administrator) would be going on this new mission, but Samantha (who as far as we know is still an astronaut) would not.

There are a number of issues with this query that others have already mentioned, but that's one that really stood out to me. Why is Samantha, previously a competent astronaut who's already saved Alex's life, suddenly relegated to the position of abandoned lady love?

Unknown said...

I also prefer to lurk in the background, but I'd probably read this book, so here are my two cents:

I agree with E.Maree--it seems unbelievable that both Samantha and Harriet would be willing to ditch their careers just because Alexander wants to prove he's right (unless they're the kind of girl that would do anything for a guy, which isn't very likable, IMO). This is something I do a lot in my own books: events happen because the author needs them to happen, not because they make sense with the plot.

And yeah, it makes sense that Harriet could go up there by herself. But say Alexander really really wants to go and he just can't bear leaving Samantha--have Samantha go too. She was part of his original manned mission to Mars, right? So she's qualified as well--maybe not qualified enough to get the data, but Harriet's in charge of that. So have all three of them go to vindicate Alexander.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Janet. That's very useful. The romantic subplot complicates matters. *runs off to revise*

PS I'm not a misogynist (truly). I included the full name of the MC as I had been told that's the "right" thing to do. Oops! I see how it can come across awful.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Obviously I haven't read the novel, but I think this might suffer from the classic 'starting in the wrong spot' syndrome. I would read the hell out a book about an astronaut who left his entire life/planet behind based on a hunch and some iffy data, if the book started in the new system. The only interesting thing in this query for me is the "Or he may have pursued a ghost he only imagined in the stolen data."

Sign me up for that. The rest of it doesn't interest me a bit.

Also, there are two strategies for writing novels when you don't know how to write female characters (other than the best option, which is--of course--learn to write female characters):

1)Write shitty characters
2)Leave women out altogether

Neither is ideal, but option 2 is probably better. If your story is about an astronaut in space, and none of your female readers are really digging the ladies in your novel, pull 'em out.

I might have actually finished Robert Jordan's work if he left women out of the story entirely.

Harley Bishop said...

I had no problem with the women when reading it, but I guess I'm only one opinion. I will second the mention that we're told in QLH to full name the MC and not the other characters. The only reason that's never come up for me personally is my MCs tend not to have two names.

MackAttack said...

Yes, the hook that Alexander may have thrown away his life and career for nothing continues to be one of the most compelling parts of the query. However, that means you need to really capitalize on that possibility. I worry in reading this that the audience will never truly doubt what Alex saw, so we'll forget this question ever existed. In order to really punch this piece of the plot, the reader has to really believe Alex could've been crazy all along, up until Alex gets his proof.

My only other comment that I haven't seen mentioned: we start out the story with the First Manned Mission To Mars. That's a big deal. An unknown but seemingly very short amount of time passes and next thing we know, we're sending Alex and Harriet to Alpha Centauri like it's no big deal, when we've JUST BARELY set foot on the very next planet over in our own system. This needs to be explained somehow. In reality, once we get people on Mars, we're probably setting up camp there for quite a while before we even think of anything else, and it's doubtful that we'd develop technology for interstellar travel concurrently with barely travelling within our system (if we can go to Alpha Centauri, why is Mars a big deal?). We also tend to be super paranoid and cautious with any scientific advancements like this (all those unmanned missions and animal astronauts), add in exploration of the EXTREME unknown, and you're more likely to get Alex's grandson seeking redemption for his supposed crackpot conspiracy-theorist ancestor going on the mission to Alpha Centauri, while Alex spent the rest of his life consumed by what he saw but unable to get any answers (and NASA spent the next 100 or so years sending missions to various places in the Solar system).

Now, if there's actual fear of hostile first contact, it makes sense for Earth to rush into an Alpha Centauri mission (maybe), but it SHOULD be a huge leap in tech to go from a Mars mission to an Alpha Centauri one (which has to be explained) AND some explanation has to be given to the public as to why we're suddenly racing there instead of checking out Neptune and stuff. If those details are handled really well, they can help with the whole "is Alex crazy and making up conspiracies" thing. Maybe he finds out about the mission, but something seems wrong, the mission goals don't add up. He works every angle to get on that mission and find out the truth, but everyone else is totally buying Shadow NASA's story hook, line, and sinker. Maybe he goes to a press conference about the mission and tries to point out how crazy it is to just zip out to A.C. all of a sudden, tries to trip up the speakers with logic.

Actually, though, I think you should definitely go with the grandson thing. A grandson would have even more reason to fear that he was chasing a ghost the whole time, and some character motivation and reactions might be improved with it. Just my two cents. Keeping Alex as the one to go to A.C. can still work, but again, the tech must be explained.

Ronan Wills said...

"Don't waste your time on trying to personalize queries."

Wait, really? The advice I keep reading elsewhere is that you absolutely do have to personalize queries, or agents will assume you're just bulk-emailing people without putting any effort in.

This gets hammered home as essential in a lot of sites offering advice, and I've even seen agents mentioning it themselves. Is that not the case?

Unknown said...

@Ronan Wills , I know right? It's like she just dropped this huge bomb on us with that one little line, shattering all available conventional wisdom with a single, pity deathblow... and nobody's talking about it.

Morgan said...

I agree with Laura that it's a HUGE step to go from first landing on Mars to a manned mission to Alpha Centauri, and you'd need to have a very good reason to explain such a leap in technology in one person's lifetime, much less one person's astronaut career.

Respectfully disagree with Shark regarding the wildness of the claim. Just because no one has been to Mars doesn't mean we haven't collected a lot of remote data about it. If someone told me there were tentacle probes on Mars, I'd think that was a pretty wild claim, despite having never been there. If someone told me there were rollerskating kittens at Shark's house, I'd also think that was a pretty wild claim, come to think of it.