Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Workshop Wednesday

By repeated request we've started Workshop Wednesday. It will definitely play out through 2011, and beyond that we'll just have to see. We've received well over 200 queries at this point, but we are choosing at random, so don't be afraid to participate as per the guidelines in our original post.

For anyone wanting to comment, we ask that you comment in a polite and respectful manner, and we ask that you be as constructive as possible. If you can be useful to the brave souls who submitted their query and comment on the query, that's great. Please keep any anonymous tirades on publishing or other snarky comments to yourself. This is and should remain an open and safe forum for people to put themselves and their queries out there so that everyone can learn. I'm leaving comments open and open to anonymous posters, as I always have; don't make me feel the need to change that policy.

And for those who have never "met" Query Shark, get over there and do that. She's the originator of the query critique, the queen, if you will.

I know that for the workshop some people might not use a salutation, but for the sake of the workshop I'm going to make no assumptions. Always use some sort of salutation. I think for most of us it's a mental thing. If you were receiving a business correspondence from a stranger, wouldn't you prefer to be eased into it a little, to feel that the email was actually meant for you rather than a blanket email sent to hundreds?

To be safe I always suggest a more formal salutation: Dear Ms. or Dear Mr. Know the name of the agent you're submitting to. Sure this takes research, but no one likes a Dear Sirs letter.

The detective stood across the street from the bus depot and watched the cops tear down the crime scene. He laughed at the absurdity when he saw that one end of the police tape was secured to the front of the building by a large Christmas wreath.

I struggled with "he laughed at the absurdity"; in fact, this entire scene/paragraph felt more like something a killer would do, not a detective. I'm also not sure I see anything "absurd" about police tape attached by a Christmas wreath. Sad, yes; absurd, no.

That being said, I did like the first sentence. It hooked me and interested me.

After a two-hour investigation into the bludgeoning death of the bum, all that was left of the poor fellow was a blood stained sidewalk. That, too, would be gone tomorrow morning after the cleanup crew washed it down the sewer.

I suggest getting an editor to work on grammar, punctuation, and style with you. You can either hire a copyeditor or, better yet, take some classes so that you can become your own best copyeditor. I've seen a lot worse (sometimes from me), but your writing is choppy here, which leads me to believe your book is going to be in the same shape.

The ringing of his cell phone startled the detective. It’s homicide. There’s another murder scene that he is expected to cover a few blocks away. He silently went to his car and drove away.

If I get this far, this paragraph kills it for me. I would have rejected at this point. Since you start your query with a presumed scene from the book, I'm judging your entire book on these paragraphs, and based on what you have here, it's not very well written. If the ringing of the phone "startled" the detective, then it "was" homicide, not "is" homicide. I also think rather than say "there's another murder scene that he is expected . . .," you should put us in the moment with him. Show us the call by showing us the conversation.

I also feel a real distance from your character. You never refer to him by name (which isn't always required in a query), but we have no idea who he is or what type of person he is. How did he feel when he got this call? Is he tired, invigorated, excited? Does he have to converse with anyone? How does he answer the phone? What kind of dialogue can we expect? We don't need dialogue in a query, but since I assume this comes from the book I would naturally expect it in a scene like this.

“Christmas is only four days away,” he thought.

I get where you're going here. Christmas is so close and yet murder continues, but if you're a detective I'm not sure that would register for you. Wouldn't that happen all the time? I also just found this line tossed in. It didn't fit or work for me.

* * * * * *

The Redemption of Mr. Ben is a gritty and deeply moving fictional tale of life on the streets of downtown Detroit. The story revolves around five individuals whose lives become inexplicably linked and permanently affected in a day during the holiday season. Each chapter contains a narrative of the events along with the character’s inner thoughts, giving the reader a unique insight to each person’s frustration and pain. As the story unfolds, each character undergoes a life-altering incident as their parallel lives become intertwined in a way none of them could have ever imagined.

The one thing you did do was show gritty, which is great. Too often authors write a summary of the story that doesn't match the description. In this case, I did definitely get a sense of "gritty"; what I didn't get a sense of was "deeply moving." In fact, the distance I felt from your character makes it difficult to be moved at all.

You also mention that the story revolves around five individuals, and yet I get no sense that this is anything other than a murder mystery featuring a detective. This is why it might be better for you to give a full summary rather than pull a scene from the book. Something along the lines of, "On Detroit's gritty streets, five people find . . ."

I would avoid saying something like, "each chapter contains a narrative of the events . . ." This tells me how the book is written, not what the book is about. I don't care if the book is first person, third person, etc. I don't want to be told about unique insight. I want to be shown in your query, in the same way you'll show me in your book, how all of this happens.

Honestly, from this paragraph, your story sounds like every other book. The truth is that in most books the protagonist goes through a "life-altering incident." It's what shows the growth of your characters and what keeps readers reading. Now keep in mind that a "life -altering incident" is very different from one person to the next and one character to the next. It could be a wedding, a broken engagement, a bad breakup, a murder, a death, a disease, a lost job, etc. In other words, this should be pretty much standard to every book being written.

The Redemption of Mr. Ben depicts the brutality and hopelessness of life on the streets: the demeaning existence of the indigent; the savage and degrading world of hookers, johns and pimps; and the crime and dereliction associated with a heartless urban landscape. Desperate people ask themselves how this could have happened to them and they dream of how they can escape from their horrific situation.

This goes so much further than your actual summary of the story. I saw none of this in your description. Rather than tell me what your book depicts I'd rather be shown what your story is about. Show me how the lives of these five people are intertwined and how hopeless their lives are. Again, show me what the story is actually about specifically, don't give me generalities.

The book is complete and it has been copyrighted. It contains just over 46,000 words.

If you feel the need to copyright your book that's fine, but honestly, it's not going to mean a dang thing in the long run. You are just at the beginning of your book's journey, which means it's going to go through many more rewrites before publication, which means that ultimately you've spent time and energy copyrighting a rough draft.

You never mention the genre you're targeting. Honestly, I think that's okay, but it might bug others. If possible, I'd try to mention it. Either way, based on the description of your book, 46,000 words is way too short. I just can't imagine that you can give me five characters and their intertwined lives successfully in such a small amount of space. I would guess this book is about half the size it needs to be.

Thank you in advance for your time.



Brian Buckley said...

"After a two-hour investigation into the bludgeoning death of the bum, all that was left of the poor fellow was a blood stained sidewalk. That, too, would be gone tomorrow morning after the cleanup crew washed it down the sewer."

Aside from the fact that "blood stained" should be one word, I'm not seeing any real issues with grammar or punctuation above, and even the style seems okay. Can someone else point out to me what I'm missing?

Brian Buckley said...

A friend pointed out one thing I missed - the sentence as written implies the cleanup crew will be washing the sidewalk itself down the sewer. Anything else?

xetheriel said...

Brian: It also states that "all that is left of the poor fellow was a blood stained sidewalk."

That's one heck of a bludgeoning job.

Also, what exactly is a "bludgeoning death"? you could say "...into the bludgeoning of a bum." or "...into the death of a bum.".

Also, it refers to "the bum", not "a bum".

Did I miss anything?

Brian Buckley said...

xetheriel: I see your points, but I'm not sure I agree with them.

If the body has been removed (which seems to be the implication), it's legitimate to say that a bloodstained sidewalk is indeed all that's left of the bum, within the context of the current scene.

A "bludgeoning death" is a death caused by bludgeoning. A quick Google search confirms this is a pretty common construction, especially in news articles. Granted, news articles are not the gold standard for style or grammar, but it seems to me like a reasonable and understandable phrase.

Referring to "the bum" rather than "a bum" also seems reasonable, because the scene is written from the detective's point of view. He is already familiar with this bum. From his point of view, I think the definite article is appropriate.

Anonymous said...

In re: the grammar/style issues in "After a two-hour investigation into the bludgeoning death of the bum, all that was left of the poor fellow was a blood stained sidewalk. That, too, would be gone tomorrow morning after the cleanup crew washed it down the sewer."

The first phrase is something of a dangling something (not quite a participle, but maybe a modifier). You'd expect it to read "after ... investigation, A PERSON did something." or "THE FORENSICS TEAM found something." Something related to the activity of investigating. Otherwise, the "all" appears to be doing the investigation. Plus, there's no logical connection between an investigation and what was left of the corpse. Removing the corpse probably only took a few minutes, once it had been released by whoever approves such things, so the problem is the emphasis on time; it implies that it took two hours to get rid of the body, or that the amount of time spent on the investigation was somehow related to removing the corpse, which I don't think was the author's intent. The two halves of the sentence just don't mesh.

Second sentence, as noted, has an ambiguous pronoun -- "that" refers back to the sidewalk, when it was meant to refer back to the blood.

Anonymous said...

Also, the last time I heard someone say "bum" to mean a person was in 1987. And he did it in a rant-- "Why aren't we allowed to say 'bum' anymore? Why do we have to say 'homeless person'? They're bums!"

So be aware it's a loaded word.

But I was really more concerned by the tense changes.

Brian Buckley said...

Anonymous 9:57: I'll agree with you on the point about time emphasis in the first sentence. I think it's okay grammatically, but I can see that it's awkward stylistically. Good point.

Stephanie said...

My main issue is that this story doesn't sound unique. Grammar issues can be fixed, but I don't know anything about the main character(s) or the life altering incidents.

I would begin the query there--show us who these people are and what they care about. What's changed for them? What makes your story different from every other crime mystery out there?

I hope this helps! Thanks for sharing your work!

C.K.Crigger said...

I'd think this whole thing is way too long for a query. Shouldn't a writer's hook wrap up in one or two short paragraphs?

Jason Kenney said...

Brian - I think if the author had gone with "bloodstain on a sidewalk" it'd be less confusing. The bum wasn't beaten into becoming a sidewalk. That'd also resolve the cleanup crew washing it away.

Beyond grammar, I felt the story itself was bludgeoning me. I get heavy handed, gritty detective pulp. I dig it. But this struck me as trying too hard. But considering I suck at queries, maybe that's the point and I've been missing it all this time.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree with the whole person/sidewalk thing, I was going to point the same thing.

Also, it doesn't read like a query to me. It reads like the opening of the book, which I suppose is an interesting tact to take, but a risky one.

I agree it needs to summarize all five people's roles in the story...but wow, five equal characters is a major undertaking and hopefully not hard to follow.

Also, I'll add that you should never critique your own work in a query. Don't call your book gritty and deeply moving...let the reader decide that.

All that said, if it is written well, it sounds interesting, especially as a holiday tale.

Candace Dietz said...

You spend the last two paragraphs explaining what your story is supposed to do. You wouldn't need them if you'd shown it from the beginning. Lots and lots of telling here.
I think I understand what you were trying to do. You were trying to capture the tone and essence of the story by telling it through the eyes of just one character instead of all five. But it just left me confused. Is the story about the dark and corrupt lives of those who live on the streets, or is it about a detective that goes around solving crimes?
Without knowing anything about your other characters, I'd guess it's a mixture of both. But I'll never know for sure because the query was so unclear.
I think you might need to chuck this draft and start all over.

lena said...

I. Need. A. Plot.

Okay, now for the rest of it. All that's left of a person CANNOT be a sidewalk, unless the sidewalk was part of the person to begin with. All that was left was a bloodstain ON the sidewalk.

However, I agree with the use of the word 'bum' that someone didn't like. If the detective thinks of homeless people as bums, that's what the query should say. If he's the MC, I need to know his story. If all five are MCs, I need to know the overall story. I found it (maybe) summarized in the two last paragraphs, not the body of the query.

Sounds like a good book, but some work on the query could make it sound much better. Also, as someone pointed out, this is the length of MG or YA novels. I'm assuming this isn't one.

Good luck on rewrites!

Anonymous said...

"After a two-hour investigation into the bludgeoning death of the bum, all that was left of the poor fellow was a blood stained sidewalk. That, too, would be gone tomorrow morning after the cleanup crew washed it down the sewer."

I agree with Brian Buckley, I thought the first paragraph was fine. It was a "voice". It was not unclear to me at all, and actually captured my interest.

However, the rest of the query fell short, IMHO. Once you've grabbed our attention w/a bloody sidewalk, now tell us what the plot is about. And don't brag about how great or moving the book is.

m----- h---------- said...

Just curious - how common is it to start a query with the opening paragraphs of the book?

Kristin Laughtin said...

You run a big risk by opening with a scene featuring one character if the book is about five. I found it quite jarring because by the end of your introductory scene, I was expecting this to be a detective novel, with one main character. If you've got five parallel storylines going on, it'd probably be better to reconstruct the query to show that.

You do show gritty well, but you tell us everything else that is a theme in your novel. Show us through your description of the story.

And as others have said, there are a couple cases where you need to watch your tense or pronouns. English allows for some pretty ambiguous constructions, so make sure your pronouns are referring back to the things you thought they were.

green_knight said...

I suggest getting an editor to work on grammar, punctuation, and style with you. You can either hire a copyeditor

Please don't make this suggestion. I'm a freelance copy editor, and I work to improve text - smooth it out, fix grammar problems, flag continuity issues, make sure it flows and is understandable to the intended audience, and all that.

I work with text, not writers, though a good writer will look at corrections, say 'I hadn't seen how you could improve the text by doing x, y, and z' and do that in the future. (Just as I'm learning from writers.)

Working on a first draft that will probably undergo at least two major revisions before it gets printed - the agent's and the editor's edit - is a waste of time and money; and worse, it might leave the client with the impression that the book is now ready to be published, while the structural and story problems remain unfixed (because you want a substantial editor for that; who then won't fix the prose on sentence level.)

And consider the implications for _your_ business: if someone submits a heavily edited manuscript, you accept and sell it, and the writer is asked to make extensive revisions (or to hand in a second book) and they don't have the skills to do that, you'll have a problem on your hands.

If a writer needs to improve, they need to improve themselves - with workshops and writing classes and beta readers and just going away, reading advice, and implementing it. Hiring someone to do it is a bandaid, and the story won't end well.

Many of my professional colleagues won't work with writers who are in the submission stage. Personally I consider it unethical to take money to feed an unrealistic dream of getting published by throwing money at it: if the text is bad enough to need a professional editor before it can be submitted it's not ready for copy editing.