Saturday, February 28, 2015

#269-revised twice

Revision #2

Sandra Lee Johnson's fledgling career as a government assassin may have been permanently derailed.

This makes me think that Sandra is just a new assassin but later you write:

"Sandra has survived for years as a killer-for-hire" 
so "fledgling career" is the wrong phrase here. If I change agencies, I wouldn't describe it as a "fledgling career" as a shark for RoyaltiesAreUs.  I'd  simply have a new place to hang my hat.

All because of one man.

Sandra's new employer, a DIA sub-contractor, recruited her because she could kill without remorse. She was perfect for their off-the-books charter: exterminate key terrorist supporters in such a horrific way that others would be convinced to find new occupations.

Sandra's first mission took her to Dubai, where she was supposed to terminate a high-level terrorist financier named Muhammad al-Abtari. Only one problem: unknown to anyone outside the CIA, al-Abtari was a highly prized Company asset.

Joe Armbruster, al-Abtari's handler, was aware that some unidentified group had been offing terrorists in heinous ways, and that his pet Islamist was next on their list. So he set up a sting using al-Abtari as bait.

You've solved almost all of the tone problem but it resurfaces here with "pet Islamist"

It almost worked.

Sandra managed to escape without being compromised, but Armbruster strongly suspected her involvement. Although he knew her only by an assumed name, he had seen her face.
Her organization's response was to spirit her away until they could get her off the CIA's 'Most Wanted' list.

Sandra prefers a more direct approach.

She knows it's not Armbruster's fault. Bad luck all around. Still, if you play in the killing fields, you know your death may be necessary to serve a larger purpose.

Sandra has survived for years as a killer-for-hire, so she knows how to murder and get away cleanly. Armbruster will make a very challenging target - exactly what she desires.

Unless he gets to her first.
The problem here isn't the query. You've got a good one now (once you fix that last issue with tone). The problem is what's at stake: nothing. It's a cat and mouse game between two people I don't really care about. Sandra, the remorseless killer, and Joe, the guy trying to stop her.  There's no larger issue, like the Fall of the Roman Empire, or the Coup Against The Queen of the Known Universe.

Think about the great cat and mouse game movie Hopscotch (based on the book by Brian Garfield). What's at stake there is the reputation of the CIA, but the difference is we really care about the Walter Matthau character and want him to prevail.  In your query, one side seems as bad as the other.

Assuming we're going to root against the terrorists just because they're terrorists doesn't really work. 

The question then becomes: who is the protagonist? Is it Joe or Sandra? We don't have to like either of them, but we must want one to prevail. 

In Ken Follett's masterful Key To Rebecca, we are introduced to the antagonist, and he has our sympathy for several chapters. Very slowly we come to realize he's the bad guy.  

The query for that book however would START with the fact that there is a spy in Cairo who can change the course of the war in North Africa. The cat and mouse game between the spy and the British major  has VERY high stakes (even though we actually know the outcome of the war before we even start the book.)

This is probably something to fix in the book first and then revise the query. 

And you might consider this: the idea that killing terrorists in horrific ways will dissuade them from doing anything defies logic. Uncertainty is what stops people in their tracks. The unknown. 

If you join TerroristsAreUs only to find that your friends are dropping dead for no apparent reason, in the most mundane of places, that's terrifying. Terrorists are people, not cardboard cutouts. I'm perfectly willing to risk a terrible death to defend my country. The uncertainty though of lots of unexplained deaths...frankly I'd be wondering if that was the hand of God saying "yea, you're on the wrong path, there bucko."

That's just something to think about. This is your book, and you should write the one you want. 


Revision #1

Sandra Lee Johnson is on the run.
From, of all people, the CIA.
Which, she thinks, is patently unfair. Since Sandra is working for a DIA contractor, they’re all on the same side, right?
I mean, come on. Is it her fault that Muhammad al-Abtari, her terrorist target, turned out to be a highly placed CIA asset? Or that the CIA thinks she was in Dubai to remove him from the board, even if she was?
It’s not as if she knew he was a double agent and went after him anyway. So why are they so upset?
Sure, her organization’s methods might seem a little extreme. Torture and dismemberment are illegal, blah blah blah.
Tell that to the terrorists.
The CIA might also be pissed because, about a month ago, one of her company’s teams swapped the heads of al-Abtari’s brother and sister-in-law. It messed up that hotel room in Santorini, too, but isn’t that what cleaners are for?
Again, who knew? Mistakes happen. No intelligence is perfect.
Some ball-less Justice Department wimp would no doubt love to get his hands on her organization. But for that to happen, those CIA agents first have to get their hands on her.
She’s asking herself how far she should go to protect her organization. She doesn’t really want to kill her own countrymen.
Then again, they brought this on themselves. A little inter-agency cooperation wouldn’t have hurt, would it?
There’s not much time left. Sandra needs to make a decision.
She just hopes it won’t be her last.

This is a mess. You're trying to be funny. Stop. I'm your EXACT audience for a thriller query and I can tell you that this flippant tone does not help you. Thrillers aren't flippant. They can be dark, sardonic and sarcastic, but they can't be flippant.

Also, this is a big block o'text, and thus it is close to unreadable on my screen. Almost every line here should have a line of white space after it.

As I see it you've got two problems: your query's tone reflects the book, and thus even if you polish up the query you're going to have a hard time with the book because of the tone, OR your query is not like your book, and that means all you need to do is quit trying to be clever, and just right a straightforward query that tells me who the main character is and what her choices are and what's at stake with those choices.

Have confidence that your story will be interesting in and of itself.

Revise, resend.


Dear Query Shark:

Most people, when offered a new job, find the decision process fairly straightforward. Since Sandra Lee Johnson’s profession is killing people, her decision process is understandably more complex.
If this is a query for a book about whether to take a job, you've set the stakes pretty low, even if the job is assassin.

Approached by her former ex-Army lover, Sandra is given the opportunity to kill terrorists for her country. And not just kill them, but to do so in ways that are so horrific they will dissuade the others from continuing with their radical ways. 

Illegal? Perhaps.  Effective? Probably.  Fun? Hell, yeah!

I'm as much in favor of kick ass, violent thrillers as the next shark, but I'm having a hard time with "fun."  This is one of those things that can work well in a book where you have time to meet the characters and appreciate their dark humor, or coping mechanisms. In a query, this a pretty brutal thing to read.

Sandra has a more immediate concern, however: survival. Someone now knows that she’s an assassin for hire.  Her primary objective is to find a way to protect herself.
Is she? I thought she'd been offered the job and was mulling it over (see paragraph one)

The non-governmental organization (NGO) who wants to hire her considers her to be the perfect candidate, largely because she can kill without remorse. Sociopathic tendencies are considered a positive when your job is to inflict terror. 
This is set up, and we're five paragraphs in to the query. Either this goes earlier, or comes out.

The NGO's leader has told her that, regardless of her decision, her secret is safe. Sandra can’t afford to believe them, as much as she’d like to, even though she considers the job perfect for her.

Someone knows she's an assassin? that's what's at stake?

To protect herself, she sets up a computer file outlining what she knows about the NGO. She then contacts an old friend, US Representative Pamela Calvert. Sandra knows that her former pal, who is just as callous as she is, owes her a favor.

Sandra explains her dilemma in vague and general terms. She then asks for her friend’s help, telling her she’ll send her the file if the NGO exposes her, or through a failsafe release process should they decide to remove their risk by killing her.

Sandra’s congressional friend agrees in principle with the NGO’s goals. She also realizes that exposing the organization could provide her with much-needed positive publicity for her upcoming Senate run. Accordingly, Representative Calvert sets out to find proof of the organization’s existence, uncaring of what such exposure would mean to Sandra.

Sandra would love nothing more than to take the torture game back to the terrorists. At the same time, her primary goal of self-protection may have unfortunate consequences.

If Sandra doesn’t play her balancing act perfectly, she may end up destroying both her organization and herself. Then again, as one of Sandra’s new colleagues puts it: how can you have any fun without a little risk?

Sandra couldn’t agree more. Then again, it all depends on how you define the word ‘fun.’ 
Shock Force is a 92,000 word International thriller. Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is a mess. You've got way too much focus on a question that doesn't matter: will she take the job. The book doesn't work unless she does take the job, so leave all that stuff out of the query.  Remember the Raymond Chandler quotes about kill your darlings. Here's where you see that in action.

Focus on what matters: Sandra's ugly job gets her killed unless…what? If she keeps the job a secret what good thing happens? What bad thing also happens?  What's her skin in the game so to speak?


I know you have told us not to use sentences that begin with 'but,' 'however' or 'so.' However (hee hee), the above query seems to lend itself to the use of those words.  Take the first paragraph, for example. It would seem to have more punch if it were written thusly: "Most people, when offered a new job, find the decision process fairly straightforward. But since Sandra Lee Johnson’s profession is killing people, her decision process is understandably more complex."

To me, the use of 'but' in that sentence gives the reader the instantaneous impression that what follows is going to be in opposition to what precedes it. Without that word, you don't set your emotional state to where this is going, so you have to think back to what came before to make complete sense of those two sentences. In other words, it doesn't seem to flow as well. When you read, "Since Sandra Lee Johson's . . .", you don't already know if her decision process is going to be straightforward or not, until you reach the end. It seems to be slighty more confusing without using that 'but.'

I could use the 'but' in a compound sentence, but then I'd violate your 'keep sentences short' rule.  So, my question: looking at the two competing first paragraphs, which one seems to give a better impression and flow? And could you also expand on why we shouldn't start a query sentence with those banned words?

You're worrying about the wrong thing here. The query doesn't work right now. You need to revise substantially.

And using but, how, so, or and effectively is perfectly acceptable in a query. All too often they're used as  filler. The way to make sure you're NOT using them as filler is to see if a sentence is stronger without them.  In your case, the words aren't filler.

I don't read queries with a check list of rules or watching for banned words (well, ok, fiction novel is the exception there)  I read them to find good stories I'll want to represent.  Right now you're not telling me about that story.

Revise, resend.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

#268-revised 1x

Revision #1

Dear Query Shark:

Michael is a problem solver – a 12-year-old brainiac who finds creative solutions where when others throw up their hands. But keeping him and his sisters under the State’s radar – even keeping them alive? This time, he just might be in over his head.

One of those tricky little mistakes that you catch only when you think about each word in a sentence. It's when (not where) because Michael finds solutions when other people give up, not where other people give up. See the difference?

Orphaned and determined not to be parceled out to foster families, Michael, Cassandra (16), and Kendra (5) disguise themselves and run away. The ‘missing children’ hide out, first, in a rustic campground - where all that stands between them and starvation is Michael’s ingenuity (Just don’t ask him what’s for dinner!) - and then in a vacant house where they try to ‘look normal,’ to hide in plain sight. But, normal people form relationships. And relationships are dangerous when you’re a fugitive. The Kindergarten teacher sees through Kendra’s boy disguise. The nice old lady Michael does chores for is oddly uninterested in his parents. And Cassandra’s police cadet boyfriend is asking way too many questions.

The rhythm of that second sentence improves if you leave out "to look normal." Again, that's something you'll catch only if you read the query out loud. 

These are all things you only catch after multiple revisions. It's WHY you make sure you do multiple revisions. 

Is there any chance the children can pull this off until Cassandra is old enough to be their legal guardian? Dare they trust that there might be another way to remain a family?

Middle Grade readers who loved Jack’s adventure and resourcefulness in Small Like an Elephant will enjoy BACKDOOR KIDS.

I have a BS in Journalism from the (University.) As a former freelance magazine journalist, I appreciate good editing and understand the importance of deadlines. BACKDOOR KIDS is my first novel and complete at 43,000 words.

We don't really call books for middle grade readers novels. I think it's safe to say this is your first book, or your first book for middle grade readers. (A chapter book has a lot of illustrations, and while this may become that, it isn't now.)

Leave out all that stuff about good editing and deadlines. I just assume you are all of those things until proven wrong. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is so much better than the first version! Congrats on some really hard work.

Revise, resend.

Dear Query Shark,

The orphaned Robinson children are in deep cow dung - Children's Services is set to parcel them out to foster families.  Except for Cassandra, 16; it's hard to find foster families for teenagers. She’s likely to end up in a juvenile facility.  

 This is a good opening for a query. Right away I have a sense of what's at stake: the kids being separated. Moreover I care about this because the idea of a regular 16 year old kid being put in a juvenile facility is just awful. I'm enticed to read on to find out what happens next. This is EXACTLY what you want in a query.

Cassandra will do anything to keep her family together.  Destroy her hair.  Lie. Get a job. Even eat nasty crustaceans and commit a crime (break into a house).  It’s a real pain to be in charge.  Things get extra complicated when she befriends a young police cadet with a good reason for being suspicious.  Maybe dating him isn't such a good idea.

And then splat. What does "destroy her hair" mean? Cut it and dye it mouse brown for a job? And "nasty crustaceans"? Like lobster?  

Then you say commit a crime (break into a house)--you only need ONE of those phrases, two is awkward. 

And then comes the romantic entanglement.  Except what's he suspicious of? Her loathing for lobster?

What you're NOT doing here is moving the story along. You've got a good set up in the first paragraph. How is Cassandra holding off Children's Services? Be specific.

12 year old Odd Duck Michael is observant and reads everything.  He also has a better than average memory.  He can build a shelter and safely feed his sisters worms and wild plants.  He’s why the children survive the campground.  Then his family holes up in a small town and, even before school starts, he’s more popular than he ever was at his old school.  The guys even want him on their football team.  Him, Michael the brainiac!  He doesn't want to leave his new life in Applegate. But staying requires remaining undercover in plain sight.  Easier said than done.

And if you could splat more you have just done it here. What campground? Are the children on the run? None of that is clear here. Not Clear is a BAD thing in a query.

Little Kendra is living her fantasy – she gets to be a boy.  But it isn't any fun to be hungry.  And she’s hungry enough to eat a bear.  Well, maybe not Bear, the dog.  But hungry enough to eat whatever Michael cooks on his tin can pan.  (As long as it isn't peas!)  The problem is, Kendra’s disguise is slipping. Her soon-to-be kindergarten teacher isn't fooled for a minute.  And Michael went and called Kendra ‘her’ in front of the old woman down the street. How much longer before all of their secrets get out?

What secret?  You've got a nice set up in paragraph one, but you've failed to tell us what the children are doing. Thus all this other stuff is confusing.

You've sacrificed clarity for telling us about the three characters. Don't do that. Tell us about the story, more specifically the plot.

Who is the antagonist? I'm assuming Children's Services but that's not clear here. I don't think Children's Services tracks kids down like bounty hunters, so we'll need something that gives some urgency to the plot.

Tweens who daydreamed in younger years of being as independent as The Boxcar Children will enjoy  BACKDOOR KIDS, complete at 43,000 words.

The Boxcar Children is a really difficult comp title because 1. The first one was published in 1924 and 2. It's gone on to become a classic.

Comp titles are generally used to show who the audience is for a book which means using a classic is statistically improbable.  You want book/s that are new, generally acquired within the last two years or so.

I have a BS in Journalism from the [University]  As a former freelance magazine journalist, I appreciate good editing and understand the importance of deadlines.  BACKDOOR KIDS is my first novel. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Question:  In QS critique #199-FTW, a query for a multi-perspective novel, you praised the writer for her restraint in not presenting each party’s perspective in her query.  I just violated that concept.  Do I need to rethink this? 

What you've given us here is essentially three versions of the same perspective: that of the kids. QS #199 had viewpoints from three different perspectives: the kidnapper, the kidnap victim, and the people left behind.   If you want to do three perspectives here you'd need the kids (whichever kid you chose), the people looking for them (Children's Services) and maybe the teacher.  

There's no way to do that in 43K words. There just isn't.  Also, if  you're writing for middle grade, I'm not sure you'd want to.

Your problem here is that the query doesn't work, not the number of perspectives. You've got one: 3rd person omniscient.  What you need now is a query that is a lot more specific and plot-centric.

Revise, resend.