Sunday, November 18, 2018


QUESTION: I hired two editors to help revise this query. So far, I've only received personal or form rejections from agents. I've read many blogs and books about how to write queries, often with conflicting information about what to include. At this point, I no longer feel like I have good perspective. What do you feel is lacking in this query? Do you recommend ending with a more personal or passionate closing?

PS: I read #303, re: your feelings about strip clubs

Dear Query Shark,

When overdose victims flood Portland’s morgue, 32-year-old Rebecca Perell discovers the deaths aren’t all accidents, and she may be next.

Is it important to know Rebecca is 32?
It's probably more important to know why she's in the morgue.
Is she a medical examiner? Lab tech? Groupie? Ghost?

Thanks to a felony drug conviction straight out of high school, Rebecca is forced to work in one of Portland’s dodgiest strip clubs, a methpocalypse of prostitution and violence. But her troubles soon turn deadly when Rebecca finds out her stepbrother, Dylan, is grooming her son to be a dealer.

Wait, what?
She's a stripper?
I thought she worked in the morgue? That first paragraph is now very confusing.

Also, you've now got a bunch of characters I'm not all that eager to spend time with. There's nothing interesting here. It's actually kind of icky.

Dylan will stop at nothing to destroy her. Killing strangers for fun is her stepbrother's hobby, but his obsession is making Rebecca’s life a living hell. Once she figures out what Dylan is up to, she must make a decision: risk her life and family by confronting him or run away. And if she runs, will her loved ones ever be safe?

It hasn't occurred to her to kill Dylan? That's the first thing that occurred to me.
He's making her life a living hell and he kills people for fun.
It's not like it's that hard to lay your hands on a gun in Portland and learn to shoot.

Given the choice between protecting my child from a guy who kills people for fun, and ..well, everyone else in the world, I choose my kid. I'd choose your kid too. Or any kid.

When you set up choices for the main character, you really need to make them feel real. My guess is most people would consider killing Dylan, but would be afraid of getting caught.  Rebecca would be afraid of getting caught and leaving her son alone if she was sent to prison.  So, if she can't kill him, what is she going to do?

"confronting him" doesn't convey much either. Is she going to yell at him? Threaten him?

And where's the kid in all this? Does he WANT to become a drug dealer? The money, the sense of being a grownup, would both be appealing.  Rebecca may have to deal with her kid not wanting to have Dylan gone.

All of this is detail, specific detail, and it is in the details that your characters come alive and their choices are clear.

Right now you don't have that.

LETHAL STEP, a completed 88,000-word psychological suspense novel is darkly atmospheric like Alan Cubbitt’s BBC series The Fall, and it features a blue-collar heroine struggling for moral redemption in the age-old battle of good and evil like Emma Flint's suspenseful Little Deaths.

You're comparing Gillian Anderson's character on The Fall to a stripper?
Maybe we're watching a different version.

While Lethal Step is fiction, the background for this novel is real: I worked as a bartender in a strip club. I’ve studied writing at a number of institutions including UC Berkeley, and one of my short stories will be published by (these guys) in 2019. Thank you for your time and consideration.

oh wait, you meant that Rebecca is a bartender, not a stripper? If I don't figure that out till your bio section, that's a problem. I assumed that "work in a strip club" meant she was a stripper, and I'll bet all these dollar bills in my g-string that the other agents who read this assumed that too.

You've made the classic mistake here of creating a villain who's two-dimensional and thus uninteresting. 

I get no sense here of darkly atmospheric. It feels seedy with no redemptive qualities at all.

To answer your question: don't worry about the closing. The entire query needs revising.

Bottom line: be specific about the choices Rebecca faces. Make Dylan a three dimensional, thus frightening, antagonist.


nightsmusic said...

Thanks to a felony drug conviction straight out of high school, Rebecca finds work as a bartender in one of Portland’s dodgiest strip clubs. It's the only way to make ends meet but hell for a single mother trying to raise a teenage son. When Rebecca finds out her skeezy stepbrother, Dylan, is grooming her son to be a dealer, and will stop at nothing to make that happen, Rebecca has a choice...

And her choice should be to protect her son at all costs. The set up, the choice, the execution of the choice and the consequences are your story. I'd pass as well on the query above. There's nothing psychological, nothing really suspenseful, nothing thriller, mystery, noir...

Also, you're not writing this to a reader, where you don't want to give too much away until the end. You're writing this to an agent so you want to give enough away that they find it intriguing and they want to read and hopefully, represent it.

Good luck!

Unknown said...

When I got to the part about Dylan killing people for fun, it was way too outlandish. It's not that you can't have a criminally insane villain, but there has to be details that make it seem to make sense.

The first problem is, how is Dylan still walking around a free man? Is he a crime boss with the entire police department on the take? Did he just escape from an insane asylum? Is he a psychopath just because, or did he undergo unsanctioned experiments that loosened all his screws?

I'm not sure if you can throw out there that the villain is a guy who kills people for fun and corrupts innocent children without giving some indication how this all came about and also why your MC (or anyone really) hasn't killed him or put him on an inescapable island prison.

I kinda like the idea of your MC protecting her son from this maniac, sounds like it could be an intriguing story, but I also wonder whether the "strip club worker in noir crime setting" might be a bit too cliche. Maybe that shouldn't be played up in the query. It could be better to focus more on the character dynamics (especially since villain is family) and let the reader discover her occupation in the pages.

Frankie said...

Why does Dylan wants to use her son as dealer? Why would he agree? Why does she fear she might be the next victim? What options does she have?

From your query, I think your story is insteresting (I would definitely read the book) but you’re leaving out some details that will make your query more interesting.
For example I don’t have a clear idea of Rebecca’s personality.
I know that writing a query is hard, you’ve to be specific enough to not miss any major detail, but you have to write it in a way it is intriguing enough to have an agent ask for your manuscript.

Re-read the archive and study the queries that obtained the approval from our queen shark.

Good luck!

LynnRodz said...

I might risk having my head chomped off by our ever-so-wise-Sharque, but I have to disagree with her about killing Dylan myself. My first thought was, why doesn't Rebecca go to the police and turn her stepbrother in? After all, the man is a serial killer and he's trying to corrupt her son. Let the police lock him up for life and throw away the key, but then there's no story. So, what is stopping Rebecca from going to the authorities? (And It can't be because she had a felony conviction when she first got out of high school.) What hold does Dylan have on her? There's the intrigue that has to be made clearer in the query, or at least hinted upon.

Good luck, OP! If your query isn't proof that writing a good one is just plain difficult, I don't know what is. You hired two editors to help you write this and bottom line straight from our Queen's mouth is, "The entire query needs revising."