Wednesday, April 20, 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.

My 89,000 word novel of suspense, FOUR-AND-A-HALF, features a woman addicted to the advice and spurious friendship of psychics plunged into a nightmare of threats, kidnapping and murders with no idea of the reason.

This query lacks any sort of introduction, and while in the grand scheme of things that isn't a big deal, there is something to be said about easing someone into a letter or email. I like the "Dear XXX" or some other form of introduction. I feel that without an introduction your query sounds abrupt and incomplete.

Believe it or not, this description tells me absolutely nothing about your book. Using phrasing like "plunged into a nightmare of threats, kidnapping . . ." actually makes your book sound like almost any other novel of suspense. It's always better to keep your descriptions personal to your book. Introduce the character here and slow it down. For example, "Eva Stuart is addicted to psychics. Forever searching for a better life, she's hoping the psychics will help her find it. What she doesn't expect is to stumble upon the murdered body of her favorite psychic . . ."

I'll leave it to you to polish and actually make this true to the book, but I think you can see where I'm going with this.

Computer technician Eva Stuart's boredom and loneliness drives her to visit psychics in the hope they will lead her to the prince who will rescue her. But when she accidentally overhears talk of a murder while she is working on the four-and-a-half floor of City Hall and visits her personal seer, it is the seer who is murdered. Others around her are killed, and she is threatened and attacked. She flees her home but is unable to escape the danger. When she runs to her ex-lover in San Francico and he agrees to help her, they uncover a high-level conspiracy in the city for which Eva works, but their search leads the killer to target them as the next victims.

What's interesting is that this paragraph actually reads nothing like your opening. This sounds like a completely different book and that's a big problem. It makes agents wonder which is actually your story, but the inconsistency makes us wonder if the same holds true of your manuscript.

The first sentence feels like the book is leaning toward chick lit. What I would ask you about this sentence is does it matter that she's a computer technician or that she was looking for "the prince who will rescue her"? I think mentioning that she's a computer technician can be good. It does help give us some understanding of who she is. The seeking the prince thing, though, bugs me. It does feel very chick lit and the reset of your description sounds nothing like a romance, so I don't know how this fits.

The second sentence: Does it matter that she works on the "four-and-a-half floor"? Couldn't it be just the fourth floor? Does it even matter that it's City Hall? Couldn't it just be work? Okay, here's the biggest problem, though: She is visiting her personal seer at work? or she hears talk of murder while at work and visiting her seer? This sentence makes absolutely no sense. I get that she's overheard talk of murder and her seer is murdered, but this sentence is all wrong and, obviously, as an agent, my first thought is that your manuscript is equally confusing.

I think you've missed a huge part of story building when you simply drop in "others around her are killed, and she is threatened and attacked." Spend a little more time explaining this. You also say she is "unable to escape the danger" but don't show us how or give us any indication how. Spend a few more sentences building the world for us.

A conclusion would be good, too. Something to help wrap up the story. Is the manuscript ready to be sent? Do you have any writing credits? That information can be helpful.

Finally, in the end, this book just doesn't have a hook. There's nothing special about this that makes it seem like it would stand out to me.



Lauren B. said...

I really like the idea of a female computer technician as a character. I do see two more things in the query that are problematic.

1) San Francisco is misspelled. Typos are forgivable, but it does suggest that if you didn't proofread your query your manuscript might be in equally unpolished condition.

2) You say "and she is threatened and attacked," but then end on "but "their search leads the killer to target them as the next victims." Seems to me she was already being targeted, no? This feels like a repetition of the stakes, not a raising of them.

Anonymous said...

My 89,000 word novel of suspense, FOUR-AND-A-HALF, features a woman addicted to the advice and spurious friendship of psychics plunged into a nightmare of threats, kidnapping and murders with no idea of the reason.

I had to read this sentence twice. Because "psychics" immediately precedes "plunged", I thought the psychics were the ones being plunged.

Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot of the comments you made. But I have to say I actually did read between the lines (which I know we shouldn't have to do in a query) and I would be interested in reading a few pages to see how the book starts. For me, the psychic angle is a hook.

Laila Knight said...

I think the problem is that we worry so much about what each paragraph of a query letter is supposed to contain that we mess it up. I'm not into suspense, but the psychic thing is attractive.

Virginia Llorca said...

I'm not too comfortable with the fact that you choose the query you analyze at random. Agents don't do this. Maybe you should analyze some that you decided to give a second look. Or at least give the reasons that cause you to read and consider an actual query that you would select under ordinary working conditions. Or maybe I need to go back and read the original concept more closely.

Lucy said...

A comma would help the psychics who were plunged. :)

While there are mechanical issues with this query, a crit group or some of the nice folks who hang out at AbsoluteWrite (See subforum, Query Letter Hell) can help you with them. Missing commas, vague descriptions, etc., fall into the category of "reparable," and none of us are immune from making these kinds of mistakes.

What I'm seeing here, however, is something more than mechanics: you're showing us a passive character. Eva turns to the psychics for help, turns to her ex-boyfriend for help, and runs from unidentified murderers. Now, there are passive people in the world, but as protagonists for novels, they can be problematic. I'm trying to think of the last time I liked a passive protagonist--that's not as nasty as it sounds--they're hard to empathize with.

Or maybe Eva isn't so passive. Maybe she takes charge and makes decisions and evolves her own strength of character. But you need to give us some idea of how that happens. I think you hint at it when you say that she and her ex-lover uncover the conspiracy together. The trouble is, there are a lot of ways to uncover a conspiracy, including tripping over the wallet of the guy who left his ID at the crime scene. It doesn't necessarily suggest that Eva takes any sort of independent action, or that she can function without some other character to bolster her.

Keep going, you'll get this worked through! Most queries have a learning curve involved somewhere. :)

Good luck!

@ Virginia

The only other way for Jessica to do it "the way agents do it" would be to tackle queries based on the date they were received, which is just about as random. The sad truth is that the slush pile, of which we're seeing a sample, does not produce many queries that would get a second look. As proof, you can check some of the query statistics that Kristin Nelson and Nathan Bransford have posted on their blogs.

The good thing is that we're seeing some common mistakes, and hopefully, addressing them in such a way that the writer learns how to correct them.

Lucy said...

Just to add to the above, where your protagonist is concerned:

Computers = analytical
Psychics = intuitive

I'd be interested to see you play this up a little more and apply it to the plot and Eva's actions in it. The two qualitites are generally in opposition, which can lead to an intriguing character if handled well.

Lucy said...

P.S. 2 No, I am not immune to typos. Which you probably noticed.

lena said...

Wow. I was very confused about this story. It sounds JUST LIKE lots of other suspense books--in fact all of them. Murder? The protag targeted? Hm, where have I heard that before?
However, I'm thinking your book is probably unique. Show us how it's unique.

@Lucy--Bella is COMPLETELY passive. And lots of people loved her. I don't necessarily think this ruins a book. In the end, it's all just chance if you ask me. People say they don't like passive protags, or girls who define themselves by some guy... yet, Twilight is probably the best selling series of the last 10yrs. Not saying I like those traits in a protag, just saying lots of readers don't care.

dolorah said...

An interesting approach to the query. I'm glad someone took the approach and allowed me to benefit from the risk :)


BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


I guess I'm unsure what you're uncomfortable with. When choosing queries to critique for the workshop I choose from a list of those submitted for this purpose from authors. I choose in the same way I read queries, randomly. Some I like and might request more material from and some I don't. I believe one of the first queries I critiqued was one that I thought would get some requests, although not from me.

The reason I'm choosing entirely randomly is because we have received well over 250, close to 300 actually, query workshop submissions. I'm picking randomly rather than from the date they are received in the hopes we can get to as many different people and submissions as possible.

Truth be told, I often read queries this way as well. At random.

Lucy said...

@ Lena

You make a good point, which then makes it interesting to look at why a passive protagonist can be successful. If I were to make a guess, I'd say two things, especially related to Twilight. One, Bella is a wish-fulfillment character: she's got two hot guys desperate for her--interesting hot guys, and not just hunky. And two, her situation is something more unique than the average girl on the run from a bunch of killers.

I'd still say that in general, the passive protag runs into trouble. However, as you pointed out, the right combination of other factors can change that.

This kind of combination may exist in the book this author has written, but right now, it's not coming out in the query. Not to say that it won't in future. :)