Friday, September 2, 2011

Stephen Tremp's Current Query Critiqued

All right. Let's get to work.

If you've never been here before, my notes and feedback for Stephen's query will be in red.

Before I get to his letter, I'll point out a couple "rules." I'm not going to pretend to be an absolute authority on anything, but this is what I've learned in my own road to publication.

The working title of an unpublished novel is written in ALL CAPS in a query letter. Like: OPENING. The finished title of a published work, even self-published, is written in italics. Like: Breakthrough.

Now, I also want to warn Stephen that a literary agent is highly unlikely to consider representing the second book in a series when the first book was already self-published, unless the first novel has sold literally thousands of copies. On the other hand, I want to commend Stephen for his courage, and for not letting that dissuade him. I obviously have no idea how well Breakthough has sold, but even if it sold only 10 copies, I think it's great that he continues to follow his ambition.

I just want to make sure he's aware that seeking representation for this book may be slightly more difficult than for another book.

Okay, let's get to the query:

Chase Manhattan I'm not going to comment on the name. With the first book in the series already published, you wouldn't be able to change it even if you wanted to. has just been rescued from certain death in Boston. Otherwise I think this opening is decent, if unconventional. It sets the stakes and tension up pretty high right away, which is great for a thriller. One thing I would change is the phrase "certain death." Not only is it a cliche, but it's also vague. Be specific. What kind of death did he escape from? His talented team of California-based comrades, this is also vague. How are they talented? Hackers? Assassins? Acrobats? contriving and executing a bold and daring plot, another vague phrase. "Bold and daring plot" sounds cool, but it could mean anything. You need to be specific in a query letter. Tell us the plot, but keep it brief. managed to thwart his execution by a group of psychopathic M.I.T. grad students. Love this. It's sort of weird, but hilarious, and awesome. These gifted zealots are on a mission to stop a new global order of aristocracy by the super-rich egregious elite and instead establish a scientific oligarchy. This is where you start to lose me. These gifted zealots sound pretty cool to me, and I can't fathom why Chase would want to thwart their plans. Wresting control from the super elite would be a good thing, as far as I'm concerned. They will murder anyone who stands in their way, now I see how they're kind of bad buys. using to their exclusive advantage a stolen technological innovation of future altering eminence—wormholes. I think you need to be careful about the language you use, and the diction with which you place certain words in certain places. "Exclusive advantage" and "future altering eminence" are both phrases that sound pretentious to me. Unless the novel is purposely campy, you don't want you query to sound like this. Be direct, get to the point, and be specific. Also, I always advise people who ask for my help not to use em-dashes in query letters. Don't get me wrong, I love em-dashes in prose, but making them work in a query letter is very difficult, because you never know what an agent's email application is going to do to advanced formatting like an em-dash. I would suggest you keep you query letter as close to plain text as possible. A bit of italics is okay, but don't overdo it. Chase and his band have blocked and counter(-)punched, huh? I get that's supposed to be a metaphor, but it sounds weird and is again just a vague phrase that sounds cool. Tell us HOW they did it. stymieing the M.I.T. maniacs temporarily; but their problems have just begun. More challenges and a diverse array of new villains await them in the second installment of Stephen Tremp’s action suspense Breakthrough Trilogy—where science meets the supernatural. Don't do this. A query letter should almost never be written in first person as far as being from a character's POV (rules can be broken, though), but when it comes to YOU, being the author, you do need to use first person. Don't refer to yourself in third person. It makes it look like someone else wrote this for you. Even if they did, you don't want an agent to know that. I would just cut everything after "just begun." You're basically just telling us things that you're about to show us anyway.

As if tampering with wormholes in unchartered spatial realms—a key plot dilemma in Breakthroughcut these em-dashes and everything between them. wasn’t enough trouble, in Opening, see my point about working titles, above. the naïve use of wormholes unlocks Pandora’s Box, unleashing demonic forces of Biblical, Armageddon magnitude. This is where your story actually begins. You may want to consider re-writing this, and start here. Everything before this supernatural spin is essentially backstory. I realize you have to set things up, and there's a whole novel that comes before this, but you need to focus on THIS story, and begin at the beginning. Chase, and a cast of diabolical villains competing for control of this reality-shaking discovery, are compelled to consider concepts of parallel dimensions—impugning their perception of the universe and humanity’s place in it.

The action and adventure for Chase enters the global stage where the geopolitical scene is almost overnight thrust into what appears to the unsuspecting population to be an inevitable World War III—but it’s much worse than even that. This is where it starts to get good. You're being specific, and giving us a great description of the actual conflict that takes place in this story. The aggressing personally I did not know that aggressing was a word, but I looked it up, and it is. China’s leadership has been usurped by a military leader who is now possessed by an archfiend from hell and its army is backed up by a demonic host of death angels on a mission to kill the entire human race. This is cool. Your novel sounds like a fun mix of sci-fi and paranormal/biblical fantasy. Love, sacrifice, greed, betrayal, and spiritual contemplation define this thriller of science run amok. Chase Manhattan must discover a depth of courage and rely on the strength of his soul mate, Susan Anderson, and the rest of their group if he is to destroy a technology mankind is clearly not ready for. This is a pretty good summary. The mention of Susan comes a little bit out of left field, but otherwise you sum this story up quite well.

I have a BSB in Information Systems and an MBA in Global Management, and have worked for some of the world’s largest banking institutions such as General Electric, Deutsche Bank, and E*Trade Bank. This background allows me to weave a particular complexity into this unique thriller. People often put a lot of irrelevant info in their bio, but yours actually sounds like it fits your story perfectly. BREAKTHROUGH no caps will appeal to fans of Dean Koontz, Dan Brown, Stephen King, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I don't think you need to compare your book to 5 bestselling authors (even though Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are actually the same person). Also, does your story really have that much of a horror element to it? Because I don't get that from your query. Another also: why are you comparing Breakthrough to these other authors' work, when it's actually OPENING that this query letter is seeking representation for?

Okay. So over all I think this query has promise. It's clear that your story has a cool premise, and it sounds like an exciting blend of science and fantasy. The voice in the query is also pretty good, and I think it fits well with the tone of your story.

You do need to fix some things, though. You can cut or at least trim most of your first paragraph. You need to be much more specific about what happens, and how things are accomplished. Also be careful about superfluous language, and I think with a little work, you could have a great query letter here.

What do you guys think? Have I made any points you disagree with? Please add your feedback to the comments, and let's see if we can help Stephen make his query letter better. Rhyme intended, just for fun!


Matthew MacNish said...

I have to leave a comment so that I can post this on Facebook. If I don't it shows some weird html code.

Talli Roland said...

I do think it's too long - a bit of trimming and removing a few adjectives would sharpen it up nicely and help clarity. I also agree re: the self-pubbed first in the series. I think Stephen will need to be prepared to disclose sales figures, although I can understand why he wouldn't do so here.

mshatch said...

really great suggestions all - I can't think of anything to add except to agree with when to start the query and that it's too long.

S.A. Larsenッ said...

I agree with you. I'd like to add something to what Matt opened up with about this being book 2 of a sequel. If book 2 is written so that it could self-sustain, then it might be a different story for an agent and maybe Stephen wouldn't have to mention book 1. That is until book 2 is picked up and does well. I'm not saying hide it, but book 2 might have substantial weight on its own. (just sayin') ;D

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Matthew, I'd told Stephen to contact you about his query and your suggestions are spot-on. It is way too long as is, but cutting the first paragraph helps. I also agree that selling the second book in a trilogy to an agent will be next to impossible. A smaller publisher might be more interested.

Becky Mahoney said...

Agreed on all counts! It's a bit tricky when you're introducing someone to the series through the second book, but I think you were a big help. For my part, I enjoyed the query, but got a bit overwhelmed by all the buzzwords. Like you said, it can get a bit campy in places.

Old Kitty said...

Glad it exists!

Wow - what a critique. I thought the query was so epic!! It seemed such a big universal global thing and you can't get bigger than the almighty wormholes, global terrorism, elite forces, Chase Manhattan!

I think the query just needed a little focusing an edited down to it's bare bones - third para - it'll be more of a query rather than a mini-if epic - book! But I know nothing!! Yay! Good luck and take care

Old Kitty said...

p.s. I meant to say glad "aggressing" exists! Yay!

Unknown said...

I agree with the comments on the language, there are places where it feels very stilted.

And I think Kitty had a good suggestion, too. It feels like the actual query starts in about the third paragraph. That is where my interst was caught, anyway.

Robyn Campbell said...

I agree with Talli. Too long! Agents eyes need more white space. I also agree with MacNish. Certain death isn't good enough. You must be specific here.

I'm wondering if you should work your hook to be this: The action and adventure for Chase enters the global stage where the geopolitical scene is almost overnight thrust into what appears to the unsuspecting population to be an inevitable World War III—but it’s much worse than even that. It seems to me that this is where you begin. (I could be wrong. See what other say.)

I will say that your query is not lifeless. It isn't generic. It's not boring. The agent will definitely want to read more. As long as you have summarized the plot to the best of your ability. Your book sounds great. I need to buy the first one, Stephen. The mention of all the authors at the end takes me right out of the query though. I think two is enough. Is there a movie you would like to compare this to? I heard an agent say it would be fine to do that because agents do it all the time when they describe books they have sold. Hmm, nice run on sentence there.

As to the first self-pubbed book, Talli is right. You do need the sales figures, but you could also do one of the following: mention great reviews for the self-pubbed novel or/and get a quote from another author about your book. If the book didn't sell a lot, the agent could assume you didn't do a lot of marketing, etc.

I love the summary, but I would not mention Susan at all. Stick to Chase only. He's the only person that needs to be mentioned by name the query.

I hope I've helped in some way. (I've been sick.) I'd love to read the query again after you rework it some.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Wow! What a sight to wake up to (6:30 am my time). Lot's of red. I love it! Still working on that first cup of coffee after a very late night of edits and a decent bottle of vino. I'll go back and read Matthew's feedback and visitor comments.

Thanks again to Matthew for having me and for everyone commenting. I really do appreciate this. Feedback is so important to a writer as they finish the editing stage and move into the promotional area.

Chris Phillips said...

While he can't change the name he could rework the first sentence to not make it the first two words in the query, thus drawing attention away from it.

Michael G-G said...

(Aargh, Blogger ate my first comment--which was full of masterly pearls of wisdom! Now I have to do what I was encouraging you to do, Stephen, and that is shorten and distill.)

First off, this sounds like quite an exciting trip: psychopathic MIT grads, archfiends in Beijing, and cool sci-fi stuff like wormholes. Those things immediately get my attention, cos they sound really cool.

But, there are a few things I think you can work on:

1) The query has long sentences within long paragraphs. Since it's a high-paced thriller, with high stakes, I would consider using snappy language with lots of white space--I'm always thinking of an agent's tired eyes.

2)In your bio, I would talk more of writing-related stuff (organizations to which you belong, the sales figures for your previous novel, the number of hits your promotional blog gets)instead of your banking background.

3)I think you overdo it with the "appeal to fans of FIVE mega-sellers." And the novel does sound more like Dan Brown than Stephen King.

Thanks for sharing this query with us, Stephen.I'd love to see a new incarnation of it when you've revised.

Weaver said...

Love the breakdown, Matt. Your explanations are clear and helpful.

"You need to be specific in a query letter. Tell us the plot, but keep it brief."

This is the hard part.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I thought it was overlong as well. (My original query was one paragraph.) And good point on shorter sentences.

Anonymous said...

Great feedback everyone. I have lots of ideas running through my head and will work this over the weekend, then repost on my blog. Thanks again!

I should mention I've at least attempted to write each book as a stand alone, although it is one continuous story. No cliff hangers. Just Chase escaping near-certain death at the end of the first two, while leaving enough unresolved conflict that is escalation to hook the reader on the next book. Hope that makes sense.

LTM said...

It seems like I remember Stephen saying a while back in a blog post that he was toying w/the idea of doing something super-hero-ish. Like funny-campy... Now I'm wondering if this is it?

Just b/c I'm with Matt--too much stylized language for a query. Think news-writing. Or police report. Just the facts, sir, and in as plain of language as you can use.

Also, I think Sheri makes a GREAT point! If this book could stand alone (as in, if there are no references to Book 1), I would consider not mentioning it. Not sure if you must, but it IS a good thought~

GOOD LUCK, Stephen!!! :o)

Bryan Russell said...

I think Stephen should listen to Matt. :)

Angela Ackerman said...

I think you totally nailed this one, Matt. This query should be cut by half I'd say. Great advice as always.

As well, with the challenge of trying to get an agent to pick up a book 2 (which I would ONLY attempt if sales are excellent), it would be important to give some sales figures from book 1 in the query. My feeling is that unless those numbers are very compelling, the agent would likely not request this book, unless it's perhaps a Companion book that could stand alone, not a book 2 series continuation.

So, provided Stephen does have great sales, mentioning a significant number will grab their attention. :) Another thing to look at when targeting is agents who seem more open to SP.

Good point about the formatting em dashes, too Matt--that's something I hadn't thought about.

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Janet Johnson said...

Wow, Matt . . . so thorough! I agreed with pretty much everything he said. And I'm with LTM about the stand-alone thing.

Since you're already off revising, I'll look forward to your next version.

Carolyn V said...

Wow! This is great. I also agree. Good luck to Stephen!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

It is too long. But you brought up a lot of excellent points that could be reshaped to put it on a diet.

Anonymous said...

My philosophy is its easier to slash and burn than to add stuff in. I'll also be able to draw out a few two and three sentence blurbs I can use on business cards or email signatures. And somewhere in here is a synopsis.

Lydia Kang said...

Cool query Stephen! As usual, I really like Matthew's comments. He's such a query Wizard.

Susan Oloier said...

Wow, Matthew! You're good at this. I found the diction to be too formal, as well. I love a great vocabulary word. But in the case of queries, I just want basic language to understand what's going on. I think this can be a great query letter. Any reason why the second is not being self-published, too? Or did I miss that?

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Matthew and Stephen .. interesting to see and read the critique of the query letter - thanks .. Hilary

Christina Lee said...

Okay my head hurts from all the red (HA!).

I also wonder if book two can stand alone? If so, I'd consider phrasing it that way.

Thanks for sharing this, Stephen (NICE work, Matt) and good luck!

Rusty Carl said...

I'm impressed at your insight. I know Stephen posted his query recently and I read it then. I thought at the time that it was good, although I do recall that I skimmed the first few paragraphs.... I didn't think much about it at the time, but I guess in retrospect I agree that it gets much stronger as it goes along. The early portions were just too vague to do much to attract me, and they were a recap of the first book.

So, great job with the critique, I'm sure Stephen will get a much stronger query from doing this.

Jeff Beesler said...

The only thing that caught my attention, and which Matt didn't comment on, was the use of the adjective diabolical next to the word villains. Aren't villains by definition diabolical? Cutting out redundancies and certain adjectives will also help make your query have a cleaner polish to it. Just a thought.

Karen Baldwin said...

That's why you're great at what you do. I couldn't have said it any better.

Anonymous said...

I love stepping out to run a few errands, then coming home to read more comments. I'm encouraged that people see the potential for a very good query letter and a very good story. That's half the battle.

I did query agents for Breakthrough, and although some agents did reply and ask for the first few chapters, I was not picked up. So I self published Breakthrough.

I hope to have better luck querying agents this month. If I don;t get an bites, I'll self publish again with CreateSpace and Kindle.

Elana Johnson said...

I don't see how I could add anything more to Matt's great commentary and the others in this chain. Good luck, Stephen!

Suzie F. said...

Sorry to get here so late. Excellent critique, Matt. I really don't have anything to add. You have a lot of great suggestions to mull over, Stephen. Good luck with reworking your query and sending it out to agents.

RaShelle Workman said...

Matthew - Great crit! You helped me so much with mine. =D
Good luck, Stephen!

dolorah said...

I must admit, I did skip through the first paragraph, and only read the portions that had specific activities.

I have to agree with Matt on the trimming, both on the query and the comparisons in the bio. I wouldn't mention specific authors in the comparison - if you use it at all - but state story types instead. Like: fast action sci-fi, high tech espionage, world domination through corrupt sciences; stuff like that.

Good luck Stephen.


Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Could this be a stand alone book?

I agree that you have to be ready with the numbers on your self published novel, Stephen.

I'll have my fingers crossed for you, Stephen.

Nice critique, Matthew...

Anonymous said...

Elana, thanks for the well wishes!

Suzie, I agree. The critique is excellent, thorough, and I have a lot to work with.

RaShelle, we do have an amazing blogging community. I couldn;t do this without a little help from my friends.

Donna, I like your alternative to comparing my book to other authors!

Sharon, fortunately I have decent numbers. Not great, but good. So at least I have something to work with.

Unknown said...

Awesome job, Matt. There was a lot of insightful information here that will help ALL queriers.

You're right, he will find it challenging to find an agent for the book since it's a sequel to a self-published one. I'm not sure how a traditional publisher would feel about this. It might be better to self-pub this one, too (if he really wants to see it out there), and work on something new that's not connected to the previous books.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Came back because I had another thought. I doubt an agent would be interested in the second book of the series, although a small to mid-sized publisher might. They might've even wanted to pick up the whole series, but since Stephen published three different versions of the first book, that eliminates that possibility.

Unless the sales for the first book were five figures or higher, I wouldn't even mention it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again Matthew for having me! I appreciate all the input form your commenters. I have much to work with and will get started on that today.

Have a great Labor Day everyone!