Sunday, June 10, 2018

#313-revised 1x

Revision #1

This really is a book without a main character. You said that can't be done, so I guess that means I did the impossible. I do not know how to say that politely. I literally counted words and mapped out the appearance of each of the eight points of view so that none of them had significantly more length or prominence than the others. I had placed a subtitle on the work because the title, by itself sounded like a science fiction novel. But it can be removed. When I wrote "sans editing" I was thinking of a professional editor (I am done with the work) and did not realize how it would be taken by a literary agent.

Because of the unique construction of the book I have decided to try and focus on the plot, which is the main character. I also kept paragraphs shorter and tried to tone down the academic weasel words which is a hold over from my career as an associate professor.

Dear Query Shark:

I am seeking representation for a completed crime novel titled Master of all the Stars.

This novel is unusual because it ignores the standard format for a crime novel. There is no all-knowing but tragically flawed detective solving impossible crimes. Nor is there not a world-beating villain out to conquer the universe. There isn’t even a main character in the standard sense. The plot, itself is the main character. The plot is driven forward by eight, diverse, carefully balanced, rotating points-of-view that are presented in discrete sections within each chapter. It is the cumulative effect of each point-of-view not an individual character that drives the plot and entertains the reader.

In and of itself, this is not a deal breaker. I'm always looking for things that are new and different. Even though this isn't the standard opening to a query, I'd keep reading.
The main plot is very simple. It is the struggle to control the 200 million Swiss franc fortune, worldwide real estate holdings, and money laundering operation of the Church of True Astrology after the death of its founder.

And here is where you shoot yourself in the foot. No matter what, you have to make your book sound enticing. This paragraph makes it sound boring.

Consider this change up: After the death of the founder of the Church of True Astrology there is a struggle to control the real estate, the money, and most critical the money laundering operation.

This main plot is divided into two primary subplots.

The first subplot involves a group of criminals who outwit the police, cooperate with, bribe, double cross, and murder each other as they attempt to gain control of the Church which they have been clandestinely using as a money laundering vehicle.

I'm hard pressed to think how you could make a band of ruffians bent on murder, revenge, extortion and general skullduggery of the greenback kind sound more bland.

The second subplot revolves around the actual believers in True Astrology attempting to locate a set of lost prophecies that will confirm the church's theology and rescue it from the first group.
Now you're doubling down with  a coven of astrologer prophecy hunters, armed no doubt with crystal balls, tarot cards, and bullwhips pursuing the crooks around the world, and they too sound like a major yawn

Beyond the two main subplots, each of the characters who contribute one of the eight points-of-view is developed, and each has their own subplot arch. Some of these are sympathetic, others are genuinely evil.

I'm all for genuine evil, but again, this isn't specific enough to be interesting.

A great deal of world-building and went into this book. An entire religion had to be created including scriptures, theology, and history. It required custom-designed star charts, astrological tables, and communal prayers. The book is also set in three locations, Hong Kong, Zurich, and Guam which must be described to readers.

I honestly have a hard time comparing this work to other crime novels, and I have literally read dozens of them. There may be other works that have used this approach, but I have not seen them. It is clearly a crime novel but told in an unconventional way, using a seldom seen format. What I do know is the combination of multiple, rapidly changing points-of-view, richly built world and exotic locations (all are places I have lived) combine to create a unique, sophisticated, gripping, plot-driven novel.

And here is where I say no thanks if I'm reading this query.

You've read dozens of crime novels?
Honestly, that's fewer than you should be reading every year if you plan to be part of this category.
You should have read HUNDREDS of crime novels, starting with the classics.

And given what you're writing, you shouldn't limit yourself to crime. You should be reading James Clavell, Aurthur Hailey, James Michener. They wrote great epic novels with vast lists of characters.

But more than that, you don't need any of this in a query.

You need to entice me to read the pages you've included.

That's all.

And I would have, if you'd made it sound interesting.

You can break every rule of querying IF you do it with style and flair, on purpose, and you entice me to read pages.

Instead, you made your work sound bland.

I have included the sample pages your agency ask for.
Thank you for your time

Revise. Give your characters some panache on the page.
Give your plot some zest.

Initial query

Greetings (Agent’s name)

When someone uses Greetings as the salutation, it always reminds me of the now cliche "Greetings, earthlings. Take me to your leader." Or worse, a letter from my draft board letting me know Uncle Sam has need of my services.

 I'm not sure why you don't want to use Dear; it's standard business form. Hello works too.

This sounds nit-picky. It IS nitpicky, but you want to set the right tone at the start; Greetings doesn't do that.

Title: Subtitle is a mystery/thriller novel that appears to correspond to the types of manuscript you prefer to represent.

No. Never ever put this in a query. Either tell me what SPECIFIC book your book is like, or leave it out. This is so general as to be meaningless.

Also, novels generally don't have subtitles.

And you don't need novel to modify mystery/thriller. Those are, by default, novels.

Again, I can hear you saying "don't be so damn nit picky" but if you've got excess words here, you're going to have them in your novel. Your query tells me what kind of writer you are, in addition to telling me what your book is about.

This is the kind of writing that leads to "french fried potatoes" instead of just french fries, or better yet, fries; and, "she looked down at her toes". Generally one is not looking UP at one's toes. If you are, then you'd include it. If you're just toe-gazing, you don't need down. Your reader will fill in the expected words.

The main plot of the book revolves around the struggle by several groups and individuals for control of the theology and especially the vast fortune of an astrology cult which has become a money laundering vehicle for powerful criminal cartels and organized crime.

Again,  is so general it's meaningless. Start with something interesting. Like what happens to one of the main characters that is important.

As in works by Russian authors such as Tolstoy this book has an ensemble protagonist. Which is to say there is no single main character. Instead, the plot is moved forward by several individuals or groups who, in some cases are not even aware of each other. The most important members of the ensemble are Izaak Houser a professional conman and the cult’s Head Astrologer. Sophia Chin-Robinson, an alcoholic housewife and cult member who lives on Guam. Xi, Shinwai a 93-year-old Hong Kong real estate tycoon who is also the cult’s wealthiest convert. Zack Xi, Shinwai’s sociopathic illegitimate son who is the CEO of one of his father’s subsidiaries which is used in the money laundering operation. Jacque Eider, the ethically challenged managing director of Zurich International Banc-Corp. Wilson Chau, a venal and corrupt law enforcement officer in Hong Kong. Gerald Morris a bitter, amoral, ex-mob lawyer. Thomas Saint-John, the leader of an Interpol team based in Geneva who is investigating money laundering and William Ngan an ICAC officer (The Hong Kong equivalent of the FBI) who is investigating what appears to be an unrelated crime. I believe this makes for a convoluted but ultimately engrossing storyline.

Never ever describe your novel as convoluted. It means difficult to follow. This is not what you want me thinking NOW. Complex, layered, multi-faceted, sure. Convoluted

There are 198 words in that paragraph and it doesn't tell me anything about the story.

You've got textbook character soup.

Here are the characters you mention by name:

(1) Izaak Houser a professional conman and the cult’s Head Astrologer

(2) Sophia Chin-Robinson, an alcoholic housewife and cult member who lives on Guam.

(3) Xi, Shinwai a 93-year-old Hong Kong real estate tycoon who is also the cult’s wealthiest convert

(4)Zack Xi, Shinwai’s sociopathic illegitimate son who is the CEO of one of his father’s subsidiaries which is used in the money laundering operation

(5) Jacque Eider, the ethically challenged managing director of Zurich International Banc-Corp

(6) Wilson Chau, a venal and corrupt law enforcement officer in Hong Kong.

(7) Thomas Saint-John, the leader of an Interpol team based in Geneva who is investigating money laundering

(8)William Ngan an ICAC officer (The Hong Kong equivalent of the FBI) who is investigating what appears to be an unrelated crime

Eight people.And not a one of them sounds interesting because you haven't given us a reason to care about any of them. We care about people when we see what choices they face.

I'd stop reading here if this was an incoming query.

I can get past all the format screwups and weird salutations, but at this point, you haven't done the one thing your query MUST DO: entice me to read more.

The manuscript is completed sans some editing. It is actually a prequel to another work which is also completed in what I plan as a series.

If I hadn't stopped reading when served character soup in the preceding paragraph, I'd stop here. Never query a novel that isn't ready to go on the day you send your query. Some of us surprise y'all by asking for things within minutes of receiving the query.

And just so you know, that last 10% of the editing? It takes forever if you do it right.

I hope that the work reminds my readers of books by authors such as Nury Vittachi because I am dealing not just with the crimes but with the subtle ways that people from different cultures and generations misunderstand each other. I also hope that readers of an author like Kurt Vonnegut would appreciate this book because it portrays imperfect people thrown into an absurd world and coping with the sometimes random consequence of both good and bad life choices. Lastly, I believe that readers who enjoy works by authors like Dan Brown would possibly enjoy my novel as it deals with alternative religious ideas particularly what most astrologers would consider a heterodox system.

Kurt Vonnegut and Dan Brown both huh?
Kurt Vonnegut writes literary work, Dan Brown doesn't even come close. When you select books to compare yours too, you need to be aware of style and tone, not just subject matter. 

I like the first sentence of this paragraph a lot. I think really terrific novels come from cultural and generational misunderstanding. Done well, this kind of novel can pack a very subtle but very powerful wallop.

The problem here is that you're telling me, not showing me. And you're telling me too much. I have no idea of the story here.  Even Tolstoy's ensemble casts novels had something that unified them.

War and Peace has 580 characters (no, I didn't count, I looked it up on Wikipedia) but it can be described without identifying more than a few:

The story moves from family life to the headquarters of Napoleon, from the court of Alexander I of Russia to the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino. Tolstoy's original idea for the novel was to investigate the causes of the Decembrist revolt, to which it refers only in the last chapters, from which can be deduced that Andrei Bolkonsky's son will become one of the Decembrists. The novel explores Tolstoy's theory of history, and in particular the insignificance of individuals such as Napoleon and Alexander.

I underlined insignificance here because if this arrived in a query, that would be the word that would catch my attention. Normally we think of Napolean and the Czars as significant. Here's a book that challenges that. I'm in!  (and that's exactly what you want a query to do)

This is an unusual mystery of just over 80,000 words. It is set primarily in the cities of Hong Kong and Zurich as well as on the island of Guam.

Well, I don't see anything unusual here about the story at all because there is no story.

Thank you for your time. I truly appreciate your diligence in reading this query and reviewing the sample chapters that I have submitted.

I know you're trying to be polite here but it comes off as smarmy. You don't have to thank the meter reader for looking at the gas meter. Reading and evaluating queries is my job.

You can reach me via my author email:

Leave this out. If you're querying by email, I have your email address already. If you want to include it, put it under your name

I look forward to your response.
You probably don't, but you're trying to be polite.

End a query with Thank you for your time and consideration. That's all you need.

What you've failed to do here is figure out how to query for an ensemble cast. The answer is not to list the characters and hope for the best.

There are some terrific ensemble cast books.

What you do is talk about what UNIFIES the characters. What do they have in common? Are they working at, coming to or leaving an AIRPORT (by Arthur Hailey). Are they living in the SOUTH PACIFIC (James Michener). Are they living/working/living/dying in Charm City (The Wire created by David Simon and Robert Colesberry.

There's simply no way all eight people can be the main character. They can be important to the plot, sure, but which character starts the plot moving forward? In Noble House by James Clavell it's not the prologue, it's the arrival of the Americans.

In Shogun, it's not the shipwreck, it's the decision to save the English sailor.

At some point in your novel, hopefully at the start, something changes. That's where your plot is.

Start over. Tell me about a story I'll want to read.


nightsmusic said...

By the time I got to the third character in your introduction to persons-in-the-story-101, my eyes crossed and glazed over. There's nothing in this that sounds remotely interesting. It's all just a series of explanations. Most books that are a series of explanations, which I'm getting the feeling this would be, are textbooks. This has no plot, no murder/theft/noir/aliens/anything that would lift it into the unique category. Kill one of those characters off! Or two. Eight or more are too many to feature. Make something happen in the query that moves the story forward. In this, all of these characters could spend 80K words sitting around a table. We don't know because no plot appears. 12 Angry Men was a teleplay. It was never a book. It would never have succeeded as one because it's visual. Your book isn't visual.

I know this all sounds harsh. It's meant to. You're reaching out to an agent while admitting this isn't done and if your query is any indication, you're going to need a lot of editing. Don't ever do that because the one time an agent jumps on what you've queried, you won't have anything polished to send her/him.

And frankly, for what it's worth, I hated War and Peace. I was forced to read it in school. I might not be alone in that so be careful what you compare to.

Revise, revise, revise!

Frankie said...

I agree with nightmusic and QueryShark. You are describing your book but you aren’t giving any sense of the story, the challenges, stakes or any sense of who the characters are.
I couldn’t read the entire list of your characters, I’m sorry it’s just plain boring.


A query should be a brief summary, of the most salient traits of your story and how the events in your novel impact the life of your characters.

Kelly said...

I've been reading Query Shark for over a year now, as well as the archives. I've also done my own research on querying. As a point of consideration, when you send a query that is not ready, for a manuscript that is not ready, you take an agent's time away from writers with manuscripts that are ready. There's a reason slush piles are miles deep. I recently attended an SCBWI conference where a New York Times Best-selling author perfected her manuscript over 10 years before she felt it was ready to submit. Yes, that is a ridiculously long time, but she also worked full-time as a teacher. When the time came for her to submit her manuscript to agents, she felt absolutely confident in the fact that it was ready. She landed her dream agent as a result. If you're not sure if your manuscript is ready, then it's not. If you feel like your manuscript is ready, let it sit for a month or two and then come back to it. Then you can feel confident in what you're querying (This advice can be attributed to Jane Friedman, former publisher of Writer's Digest).

Julie Weathers said...

My fantasy has five POV characters. I focused on the main character, what she wanted, what and who was standing in her way and what was going to happen when all hell broke loose. The other characters were woven in very seamlessly and briefly as related to her.

I may not have done everything right, but I got a lot of requests because agents wanted to know more.

A League of Their Own is one of my favorite movies, but if someone just listed all the characters, I wouldn't even bother to turn the tv on to watch it.

"If I hadn't stopped reading when served character soup in the preceding paragraph, I'd stop here. Never query a novel that isn't ready to go on the day you send your query. Some of us surprise y'all by asking for things within minutes of receiving the query.

And just so you know, that last 10% of the editing? It takes forever if you do it right."

Yup. When I was querying Far Rider, I had one agent with a top agency request the full within five minutes. I think it was two minutes, but I'd have to look at my notes again. He must have been sitting there with nothing to do when the query came in because it was almost hit reply quick.

Thankfully, it was ready to go and it went back to him that day.

I can attest on that last 10%. That's when you've got all the plot holes fixed. All the duplicate names fixed and you're going through scanning every word and every sentence to see if they work and does something else work better. He walked slowly with a shuffling step might work just as well with him shambling.

Anyway, good luck to the poster. It sounds like an interesting premise. I'll be looking to see how this gets reworked.

Tammy Pigott said...

“And just so you know, that last 10% of the editing? It takes forever if you do it right.”

Yes! Yes! Yes!

I’ve been learning this the hard way. Thinking, ‘Yay! I only have another month . . . Ok, maybe another two. . . Well, hmmmm.’

I would definitely suggest the submitter read the archives (they are invaluable and will open your eyes to a wide range of issues scattered in this query). I can’t count how many times Janet has raged about ‘character soup’ and starting with the plot!

Lion said...

Wow! I've never read War and Peace because frankly I was warned against the gazillion characters and the several pound weight of the book. (And the sound of the plot never intrigued me anyway.) But it sounds like a comp like that isn't going to do you any favors either with lovers or haters of the novel.

But when you hit me with EIGHT main characters in 80k words, that's when you really lose me. That's 10k words each, and at the same time you're claiming to include descriptions of this Astrological cult.

What that tells me is that probably not one of the characters is fully fleshed out, nor is the cult. As an actual part time astrologer, I can promise that 10k words probably isn't enough to describe the cult itself (if you're going into depth beyond, "Yeah, they're just some weird astrological cult!") and the audience don't really have to understand it. So there you've got a 9th character "The Cult" in those 80k words.)

For a query, give us ONE strong character that we can relate to and his/her stakes and opposing forces.

But I'm sorry, the problem here doesn't seem to be ONLY the query, but the MS itself.

And honestly, as a reader, I don't believe the plot can be a character. Outbreak the movie is a great view of plot-as-character sorta-kinda-not really. We've got a mega-virus (actually, the VIRUS can be a character, but the plot itself cannot) and we're all going to die but even so, until the humans step into the mix - the doctors trying to heal people (and not get infected themselves) the victims, societal breakdown etc. Without PEOPLE behind it, it's just something I could watch on the news and either freak out about or not.

Having not read War and Peace, I am going to still bet that there were at least 3 characters in the book that the reader could relate to: Whose perils and problems were enough to keep the readers keep reading.