Friday, December 2, 2011

Nancy Thompson's Current Query Critiqued

Okay. We've got Nancy's query again today, except this time with my redline.

Let's get right to it.

Dear (Agent's name):

Skylar Karras awesome name wants one thing, to enjoy life with his new bride and the child they’re expecting, but when his wife falls victim to a reckless woman’s greed, I like this, but it's vague. It becomes clear in a moment that she was probably murdered, but who is this reckless woman? If she's not an important character in the novel, you could just say his wife was murdered without mentioning by who. he’s forced to bury them instead. Now all Sky wants is revenge. His brother, Nick, has the perfect plan: grab the woman responsible and turn her over to his boss, a sex-trafficker in San Francisco’s Russian Mafia. Okay. This is really cool, but it goes with my point, if the murderer is a sex-slave, or a junkie, or both, say so right away. He is he Nick, or the mob boss? offers Sky a deal he can't refuse. In exchange for the woman, he’ll let Nick I thought this was about Skylar, but now Nick's the one who needs to get out of the game? Does Sky not also have ties to the mob? leave the business for good—with his debt wiped clean and his heart still beating. I think we may need to understand this setup a little better. We've got these brothers, one or both of them has ties to the ruthless Russian Mafia, and one wants revenge for his wife's murder, which was committed by a woman associated with the mob. If Sky wants revenge, why would he give this woman back to the mob? Had she somehow escaped their clutches, and he's planning on returning her to her life of victimization?

There’s just one problem: Sky kidnaps the wrong woman. Uh oh. This is a nice twist, and it will work even better if you can clear up the first paragraph a bit.

Now he must protect Hannah Maguire from the very men he’s mistakenly set upon her. But the Russians are holding Nick as leverage to force Sky to complete their deal. I'm starting to understand. Nick was the one caught up in all the crime, Sky was the good brother, but he wants to save his brother and get his revenge all in one move. Caught in a no-win situation, he must find a way to save himself, his brother, and the girl. But with the Russian Mafia, even two out of three makes for very long odds. This is pretty good, great summary, great stakes, great set-up of a difficult choice to make.

THE MISTAKEN, a psychological thriller of 91,000 words, might appeal to fans of Jennifer Hillier’s Creep and Greg Iles’s Turning Angel and Sleep No More. Perfect. This is exactly how you should make these comparisons.

Though I no longer have ties with anyone in San Francisco’s Russian underworld, I have loosely based my novel on villains and events from my past there. I'm not sure what to say about this. On the one hand, your experience gives you a unique and singular ability to tell this story, which is clearly important biographical information, but I think you might need to get more specific. I mean not here, in a public forum, because I'm sure it's personal information, but I think it will make a big difference to an agent whether you are an ex investigator, criminal, or victim. I'm not sure, it may not matter as much as I think it does, but "ties with anyone in San Francisco’s Russian underworld" could mean many different things.

I would be happy to provide sample chapters, a full synopsis, or the complete manuscript. Thank you for your time and consideration.

So this query is already very good. You people have to stop sending me these great queries, because it makes my job very hard. Just kidding.

I really think you're in great shape here. You've obviously got a high stakes premise, and this sounds a bit like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or Eastern Promises, but darker, American, and more contemporary. I think if you fix a couple things in the first paragraph, to clarify, you'll be in excellent shape. My biggest problem is with the logic of the solution, if Sky gives the woman to the mob to save his brother, he's not really getting his revenge, unless giving her back to the mob is the revenge. You need to make that clearer.

Best Regards,
Nancy S. Thompson
(personal info redacted)

That's all, folks.

So what do you guys think? What would you add, cut, or change? Am I wrong in my confusion about the solution to Sky's problems?


Huntress said...

I gave up on this particular query format. "Fabulous Name finds love and hate in the terrible conflicts of his/her life."

I converted to, "Fabulous Title is about Fabulous Name who falls down a well and finds gold."

For me, the sky opened up and the angels sang.

Melissa Bradley said...

Great query, but I do agree with Matt about the beginning paragraph. It was a bit unclear. I wondered if the woman had murdered Sky's wife in a fit of revenge against him or was it a deal gone wrong and the wife was caught in the crossfire.

farawayeyes said...

I'm always reluctant to comment. Much more comfortable sitting back and learning.

BUT, this time I felt the same confusion about the brother/girl/crimes. It seems like a little clarification there would make it grab me.

Interesting premise and I like the no 'clean' win outcome.

I want to read it.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I think the premise of the book is awesome, but Matt and the other commentators hit on the few things I'd want clarified:

1) how a "reckless" woman killed his wife (reckless doesn't sound like murder -- was she a drunk driver?)

2) Nick's ties to the sex traffic underworld. Does Nick approach Skylar and ask for his help, and Skylar sees a way to help his brother and remove a worthless woman from society?

It would probably take only some minor adjustments to insert this information artfully. Give us *just* enough information to whet our appetite for me.

Good luck!

Bryan Russell said...

Thi sounds super intriguing, but I agree that the first paragraph is a bit muddled and jumps around a bit too much, which makes it hard to understand who does what and how the different people are connected together. And are they turning the woman over to be a sex slave, or for some other end result?

There are certainly some big hooks here, though. Here, fishy fishy...

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Excellent suggestions on this one. A sharper focus in the first paragraph will make a world of difference. I thought the first sentence was a bit long as well.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Sounds like great premise, but I'm with the others. It needs a little tweaking to make it clearer who the story is predominantly about. And I agree about the bio. You need to be specific as to what your background is to add the credibility.

Great job!

Adam Heine said...

I like the conflict and stakes that are set up here. I agree with Matt that the first paragraph is a bit confusing. There are a lot of characters all at once (Skylar, his bride, his child, a reckless woman, Nick, and Nick's boss), and it gets hard to keep track of who wants what.

I think you can start P.1 straight off by saying Skylar wants revenge against the woman who took his family from him. So he goes to his brother Nick who has ties in the underworld. Nick's Russian Mafia boss offers him more than he hoped: if Skylar can deliver the woman, he'll release Nick from the business as well.

It's still missing a detail or two, but the point is, stay focused on Skylar. There was a point in P.1 where I thought we were switching to Nick and what he wanted.

Also on the "I no longer have ties" paragraph, I at first thought it was a joke. When I got to the end of the sentence, I wasn't sure. If it's true, I agree with Matt: be more specific. If it's a joke, it's not coming through yet. I'd say either fix it or drop it.

Otherwise this looks pretty solid, and that's not easy. Well done!

Jen Daiker said...

I agree with sharper focus at the beginning. I never have much to say because I end up loving the story line... which was definitely the case here. Great query letter! Few changes and it looks like you'll be rolling into agent territory!

salarsenッ said...

I really like the way Matt flushed out the details. I agree that the opening statement could be a bit more specific. Why is she reckless? For some reason I want to know this. I also think it's be neat if you added some of the tension that's obviously in the story to the opening. That would definitely grab me. Love the character's name!!

Best of luck with this. Nicely done!

Yvonne Osborne said...

I was put off by the main character's name. Skylar (Sky) to me is a woman's name and nickname. So my first confusion was with gender. I agree that "reckless" is the wrong adjective to use here. Or at least it feels wrong (understated). Reckless is running to my mailbox in my barefeet on a blustery snowy morning (like today!).

I felt the same confusion with the first paragraph. The twist about the wrong woman works. And I guess her name is Hannah? But what about the real woman? That "reckless" woman in the opening paragraph? What happened to her? Was she ever found?

You have a good query that just needs the solution tweeked and the opening paragraph clarified. This, too, reminds me of Eastern Promises, and that's ain't bad.

I thought it intriguing that you had any firsthand experience with this bunch but Matthew is probably right about being more specific.

Good luck!

Old Kitty said...

When I first read the query, I got most intrigued by the "reckless woman's greed" because the story seemed to hinge on this one cataclysm. I love the twist about kidnapping the wrong woman and how the hubby has to turn protector to redeem his mistake! Great stuff! Take care

Donna K. Weaver said...

Already a lot of great suggestions. I didn't assume in the beginning that the woman who killed his wife and unborn baby was part of the Mafia. Reckless woman made me think of someone doing something stupid. The greed did confuse the issue. I guess it's motivation for doing something stupid but it creates more questions than it answers for me. I didn't think his wife was murdered.

Very intriguing story.

.jessica. said...

I don't have much to add, but wanted to pop my head in and say it sounds like you have a fantastic story on your hands! Good luck querying! :)

Slamdunk said...

I'll leave it to you all to make the good writing recommendations, but the sentence "Though I no longer have ties with anyone in San Francisco’s Russian underworld, I have loosely based my novel on villains and events from my past there" is enough to get me to want to read the book.

JeffO said...

Nancy's got some great hooks there, and even with the confusion in the opening paragraph, I'd love to read the story. I did get a little lost with regards to who is offering the deal. I also thought the first sentence came off a little long, and would suggest something like this:
"Skylar Karras wants one thing: to enjoy life with his new bride and the child they're expecting. But (not sure how people feel about starting with 'but') when his wife falls victim...he's forced to bury them instead." Love that last bit, that's a kicker. So is the 'kidnaps the wrong woman.'

Great job, Nancy.

Michael G-G said...

This does sound like an intriguing, high-stakes story--and, as THE Middle Grade Mafioso, I'm always up for all things mafia. Even Russian mafia.

Hope it's not beating a dead horse but I had the same confusion in the first paragraph as everyone else appears to have had (though not with the name. Skylar is definitely male in my book.) I guess I want to know WHY a "reckless woman's greed" would cause someone's death--was she speeding away from a jewelry heist and not using her turn signals? And it was quite a leap to get to Skylar's revenge being sticking her as a sex slave with the Russian mafia, unless she was a former sex slave on the run. Why not just take out a contract and rub her out? If brother Nick's with the mafia, he might be just the guy to do it.

And the mafia is going to let Nick go, just for bringing them a woman? Seriously? It seems too easy of a bargain.

It may be that there are too many things going on in the story itself to make the query one that doesn't raise all these inconvenient questions.

How about "When his wife and unborn child are killed (insert how they are killed here), Skylar Karras wants only one thing: revenge. His plan: he's going to (re?)turn the woman responsible, Susie Doe, over to the Russian mafia. Skylar's brother, Nick, has ties with the Russians, and the mafia is always looking for sex slaves. A life of sex slavery for Susie might go some way to ease the pain in Sylar's heart. The bargain might also get Nick released from the "business" with his debt wiped clean and his heart still beating. At least, that's what the mafia boss promises."

Still needs work, but I think it's a tad less confusing.

Good luck, Nancy! Thanks for being brave to share your query with us. I'll definitely read the book when it hits the shelves, mafioso's honor!

Matthew MacNish said...

FWIW, my grandfather's name was Schuyler, which is pronounced the same as Skylar, so it can definitely be a man's name, but I could see it being a woman's, too.

Matthew MacNish said...

And I just thought of something else. I think you should spell Mafia like this: Mafiya. I often see it spelled that way when referring to the Russian Mob, as opposed to La Cosa Nostra, the Italian Mob.

Susan Roebuck said...

If I were an agent, I'd snap this up - it's the bit at the end "Though I no longer have ties..." that gets spikes my interest.

Once the first paragraph is tightened, and the first line shortened, this will be a great query.
Excellent critique Matthew.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Wow! Yes, clarification on her ties with the mafia is important. Agents and publishers like to know the potential legal challenges up front, and in this case, it's the illegal challenges. A friend of mine wrote a book that exposed a few real-life illegalities and her publisher had to hire a bodyguard for a few months.

Michael Offutt, Expert Critic said...

I like the ties to the Russian underworld but I think you should have lied here. Example: I have ties to the Russian underworld and am not afraid to use them if you reject this query.

Something like that could go quite far, I think.

I do think that the query is quite good. The modifications that Matthew and others have already suggested will make it sing.

Anita said...

Matt, you are sooo good at this...dude, people should be paying you. :) Also, I hate that I can't post the day before, because you always steal everything I want to say (plus you find more great stuff to say, of course).

Nancy Thompson said...

Wow! Thank you so much, Matthew and all those who commented.

As the author, I know too much. I'm too close to the story to see where there might be some confusion. Knowing exactly where you have questions has enabled me to focus in and clear things up.

And Matthew, you're right. Nick is the one caught up with the mafia and Sky wants to save him and get revenge all at the same time.

As for my bio, I think I've fixed that, too, by limiting my own ties and explaining why I wrote the novel.

Again, my thanks to you, Matthew, for all your hard work. I think the fact that the query (after working on it for nearly a year) was in relatively decent shape to begin with, made it that much more difficult for you to critique, but still, you dug deep and did a fantastic job, and I am eternally grateful. Maybe this query will finally do the trick.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment on the first paragraph. It was interesting, but confusing.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great critique - the original query already pulled me in, with a bit of polish, it'll shine! :)

maine character said...

What everyone else says. Plus, I really like this: "Caught in a no-win situation." As Matt said, that's really raising the stakes.

The Golden Eagle said...

I agree with the other commenters--the first paragraph was a bit confusing.

It sounds like a gripping story, though!

Melodie Wright said...

Nancy - does your story include Hannah's POV ever? Bc one suggestion would be to start your first graph from her perspective. It'd make for a strong hook: Hannah started the day with a walk to work and ended it in the trunk of a car with her wrists duct-taped together. Etc.
Then you could segue to Nick and Sky's saga w/ that second hook of - but they got the wrong woman.
Good luck!

alexia said...

A great start! I would suggest simplifying - try to make it a little tighter and snappier. Also, it feels a little like what Janet Reid calls "name soup". You don't necessarily need to include names except for your MC.

Sounds like a great story! And I love Jennifer, so great reference!

Lydia Kang said...

I agree with wanting that first para clearer. The premise is really intriguing, though!

Jessica Silva said...

I like the last paragraph because, like Matt says, it's a great summary, it presents great stakes, and it has a great set-up for some impossible choices. The only thing missing is what Sky wants: revenge. So then the hook feels misleading to me, because it's never mentioned again. Maybe the first paragraph would be clearer if it only focused on the twist, instead, as the hook.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great query and Matt did a great job in suggesting improvements. I loved the There's just one problem paragraph. It really grabbed me. Good luck.

Julie Musil said...

Holy cow, he kidnaps the wrong woman? That is AWESOME!!!

I agree with Matt about that first paragraph. Once that's clearer, it'll flow much better.

Wow. He kidnapped the wrong woman. LOVE that twist.

M Pax said...

You did a good job, Nancy. And got some great advice from Matt.

mshatch said...

As always, Matt, a fabulous job. You always impress me with your query skills - I feel like I should bow down and say, "I'm not worthy!"

can't wait for the next one :)