Friday, January 20, 2012

DL Hammons' Current Query Critiqued

All right. Here we are, Friday morning, and we're back to Don's query. This time, with my feedback, which will be in red.

Here goes:

Mr. or Ms. Agent
The Most Awesome Literary Agency Ever,

I think you need to focus your flattery more the particular agent, and less on the agency. Something like Dear Most Awesome Literary Agent Ever, who works at one of the coolest agencies, which is only slightly less cool than the agent herself ...

Just kidding. I do love this, though.

Now, I do want to say something about voice. Many of you will already know this, but for you beginners out there, when you compare this query to Alexia's, from earlier this week, you may think this one lacks voice. It's certainly not as colorful as hers, but the thing is, that's good. The voice of the query needs to match the tone, style, and voice of the novel. Don's written a contemporary thriller, so his query needs to reflect that, which I think it does.

Lee Hamilton is watch your tense. Queries are rarely written in present tense, but if you feel it's important to do so, make sure it's uniform throughout. I'll point out later where your tense switches up. a small town HR Manager whose pedestrian life is only buoyed by his long-standing friendship with five old college buddies, the Knights. That all changes when he receives a phone call informing him that Steven Ebe, one of the Knights, has been found beaten and left in a coma. I would separate your paragraph here. These first two sentences are basically what we call hook, and they're pretty good. We've got a sense of character, a bit of backstory, and an inciting incident. Make them stand out by giving them their own paragraph. The group’s old I think you can cut this old, and the one two sentences before. By telling us they're his college buddies, since we know he's well into his career, the old is implied. motto comes rushing back -- you mess with one Knight, you mess with them all! Ebe is a reformed I would change this to former, rather than reformed. Depending on what kind of hacking he did (which can be morally ambiguous), he may or may not have had to reform anything. hacker who recently went to work for a private detective agency in South Carolina. Dianne Williams, the manager of the detective cut agency, surprises Lee with additional info explaining how her entire workforce has been sickened by some form of poison. Is this poison what put Steve in the coma, or something else entirely? You want might want to clarify. Rallying around their fallen companion, the Knights join forces with Dianne and discover a series of numbers huh? found in Ebe’s possession tied to a large scale cybercrime. The mystery deepens when the numbers are also cut linked to a Columbine-style high school shooting in Virginia? Is this meant to be a question? I think this should be a normal sentence, ending in a period.

Hmm. Okay, I think this is off to a good start. We've got a nice mystery, some heightened stakes, and a pretty good sense of upcoming conflict. I worry a little about naming so many characters, especially given that you're sharing their first and last names, but I get the feeling that's typical for this kind of novel. As long as you keep it to these three characters, I think you're okay.

I'm curious about these numbers, though. It may not be critical, but I feel like I want to know more about what you mean. Is it some kind of decryption key? If Steven was a hacker, it's got to be something related to information security, right? I would like just another word or two describing exactly what kind of numbers they are.

Dianne and Lee decide to fly to Virginia where they encounter a city I would name the city, rather than the state. You tell us it's Virginia in the last paragraph, and then you mention a city here. Just tell us if it's Richmond, Norfolk, or D.C. still reeling from the emotional impact of the shooting and distrustful of outsiders who won’t allow them to forget. Following leads withheld from the police and FBI, they quickly learn everything is not as it’s been reported in the news. Normally I would say this is a little vague, but I think you're okay here. If you explain too much, you'll end up in synopsis territory, and the query only needs to entice. The mysterious numbers are connected to even more crimes, the school shooter was it might look like this is the first tense switch, but this is actually okay. not working alone, and he left behind a suicide note that simply read…I’m not finished yet! Did the note really use an exclamation point? You've got one in your first paragraph. I would cut them both if you can, but definitely at least one. Lee and Dianne had somehow stumbled across the wizard behind the curtain, and the Knights weren’t in Kansas anymore. Now the group had this is the first place I see where we are definitely no longer in present tense. This should say has. a choice to make, make this comma a colon. return home and pass up a chance to clear their friend’s name, or put their very lives in danger by going toe to toe with an unimaginable fiend. This makes me think of fantasy for some reason. Like a demon. I know that's not what you mean, but you might want to be a little more specific about your antagonist.

All in all this paragraph is also pretty good. It sets up a mystery and a sense of conflict well, without giving too much away. It's obvious that the stakes are life and death, and there is a clear but tough choice for the protagonists to make. Except for the minor mechanics things I've pointed out, this is pretty well done.

FALLEN KNIGHT is a mystery/thriller novel complete at 105,000 words. By day I am the writer of technical journals and instruction manuals, but when the sun goes down I'm an active member of the writing community. I am also a proud member of Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers. Fallen Knight is poised to be part of a larger series and I feel a perfect companion to your agencies other offerings. I would be careful here. If you're going to compliment an agent's list, that's fine, but give specific examples, to prove you've done your homework. If not, don't mention it.

Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you. Some agents have a no response means no policy, so you may not hear from them at all. I think you're fine just paring this sentence down to the first clause.

DL Hammons

So, in summary: you've got a good query here. There's a very clear sense of plot, conflict, stakes, and a difficult choice. We don't know much about Dianne, but we've got a decent sense of Lee and Steven's character, and I think we're okay without knowing a whole lot more about her. My biggest concerns, other than minor writing mechanics things, are the vagueness of the "numbers," and no real sense of our antagonist. I get the feeling the real bad guy is not the same person who shot up the high school, but we don't really know what he's after, or who he is. That can be okay, but if you want to keep him a mystery, you might cut that line about the "unimaginable fiend."

That's it.

What do you guys think? Disagree with me? What would you like to see cut or added from or to this query?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Good suggestions. I think he did well with the letter - just needs some minor cosmetic changes like a word here or there.

Tonja said...

I think agencies should be agency's in the second to last paragraph. I agree with splitting the first paragraph into two. I wasn't sure if there was a connection between the friend's death and the poisoning. Good query.

JE said...

Excellent suggestions, Matt! You were right on the money here and I found myself nodding with each suggestion made. Especially the two about naming so many characters and the vague mentions of numbers (and a few other vague things!)

Good job! To both DL and Matt! This genre isn't my thing, but it sounds interesting.


Sarah said...

I only have a few suggestions. It would be more concise and therefore have more impact if you just said, "That all changes when Steven, one of the Knights, is found ..." I don't think we need to know right here that Lee finds out via phone.

The first place the tense switches is actually "Lee and Diane had somehow stumbled ..." That sentence should read "Lee and Diane have stumbled ... and the Knights aren't in Kansas..."

As for the rest, I agree with Matt's feedback--including that this query is solid! Good luck with it!

DL Hammons said...

That's some great advice, Matt! Thank you!! I don't disagree with anything you've pointed out and happy that I'm at least in the ballpark. I'm looking forward to hearing suggestions from everyone else as well! If somebody wants to get more specific and ask me follow up email address is right there in the letter. :)

Rachel Schieffelbein said...

This sounds really interesting. My only question is, are you sure it's a thriller? I don't know a lot about thrillers, and I am only asking because on Janet Reid's blog Query Shark it seems like she is always telling people 'this is not a thriller' because there's no ticking clock and there's only personal stakes. Again, I really don't know, that's why I'm asking.

DL Hammons said...

Rachel ~ The last 1/4 of the book is very much a ticking tock scenario, but unfortanuately I couldn't figure out how to include that in the letter without getting to detail and lengthy. Great point and question though!

Slamdunk said...

Well done DL and Matthew.

Ahh tense agreement. One thing I have learned to check myself on after reading all of you real writers' blogs is verifying that I am consistent with tense.

JeffO said...

I haven't really dug into it too deeply, but my main thought is that the query feels too long. It feels more like a synopsis to me. It sounds like an interesting story, but would an agent have the patience for a query that long?

Sarah Ahiers said...

Yay! DL this query has grown so much! Matt's suggestions are great as usual. I think you're almost there.

The only thing i disagreed with was that queries are not written in present tense. All mine are, and a quick glance at queryshark showed that that was the norm.


Matthew MacNish said...

Sarah makes a great point, and I'm not sure why I said that, considering my own query is written in present tense.

Present tense (simple) is fine, as long as it's consistent throughout.

Elena Solodow said...

I think you've got a good start here, DL, just add some specifics. The framework of a query is always hardest, so I'd say you have that bit down. Here are my comments:

I would be more specific about the Knights - how do they buoy him? Nights out drinking? Bowling? Just to give this more flavor.

You can cut "informing him", and I would cut
Steven's name entirely since it doesn't seem to be vital to the query. I agree that you should start on a new paragraph.

I'm not a fan of either of the exclamation points. They come across as corny, in my opinion.

I got a bit lost on the poison thing. I would provide a logical chain of events after the motto bit, such as: "The Knights investigate at their friend's job, and find some surprising news...." Something like that, then you can bring in the poison and it won't seem so random. But also make it clear how their friend comes in to the situation, since you say he was beaten before.

I agree that you have to be more specific about the numbers. I know next-to-nothing about computers or codes, so I don't really know how numbers could be linked to cybercrime and a high school shooting. If that's part of the mystery, fine, but give us some more details. And no question mark after Virginia.

So they fly to Virginia to do what? Again, be more specific. The query framework is in place, but I'm not sensing motivations for some of this stuff, which makes it hard to follow. What are they trying to stop/discover if the shooting has already happened?

Still not clear on how the numbers are linked to crimes...and what is a wizard behind a curtain? We need to get a sense of the greater scheme at this point. What are they battling? The shooter? What's at stake? Sure, their friend is in a coma, but I have no sense of what they're trying to do to avenge him. Who is standing in their way and what do they want?

I agree with Matt about saying "other offerings". Personalize if you can, otherwise leave it out. And I would also cut the "I look forward to hearing from you" for the reason Matt provided - it also kind of puts this pressure on the agent and expectation that they're going to say yes, which may be a turn-off. I just say "Thank you for your time and consideration", which closes the matter up whether they get back to me or not.

Hope this helps!

Tasha Seegmiller said...

I really like the voice of this letter. I am guessing there is the element of mystery as they try to figure out the antagonist, but would maybe like that alluded to just a bit more.

Good job DL!

Michael G-G said...

I was going to call you out on your "rarely written in present tense" assertion, but Sarah beat me to it. I even went trawling in your achives, which shows what a sick puppy I am.

Now, down to business. I was concerned about the length and the rather synopsy feel of this. There are a number of extra words: "Dianne and Lee decide to fly..." Why not "Dianne and Lee fly?"

My sentence would read, "Dianne and Lee fly to the scene of the shooting, where they find the population still reeling from the tragedy, and distrustful of outsiders." (24 words instead of 32).

I totally agree with Matt about the "unimaginable fiend" sounding like fantasy. I think it's the word "fiend". Play around with who/what yor antagonist is. A madman, a psychopath who wants to rule the world?

Also agree with Matt's comments on your closing line. Half the agents out there don't respond unless interested, so "thank you for your time and consideration" is it.

Thanks for sharing, Don. I think you have a great story here. If you take Matt's suggestions and also tighten things up at the sentence level, I think you'll do well.

Old Kitty said...

I think I'd have started with Steven's death and most intriguing suicide letter! The letter really made me sit up and listen. Then I'd have taken the story backwards from there.

:-)But just my personal opinion!!

Take care and thanks for sharing!! x

DL Hammons said...

This just keeps getting better and better. Thank you everybody! And Elana...I owe you a (((HUG))).

There are two topics that seem to keep popping up as points of confusion, so let me take the time to explain them and maybe somebody can help me clarify. First, the numbers. They are simple series of five numbers, but what makes them suspicious is that they are written on a piece of hotel stationary from the city when the school shooting took place. Those same numbers are mentioned in an CNN article found on Steven's laptop which involves money being syphoned from bank accounts. It is later on in the story that it is discovered that those same numbers are indirectly connected to seemingly random murders.

Then there is the poisoning of Dianne's agency. No, that did not put Steven in a coma (he was beaten), but Dianne suspects (correctly) that the two events are connected because Steven is the only investigator who worked from home and therefore was not exposed.

Like JeffO said, I know that words are at a premium in the query but sometimes being concise actually causes more confusion. :)

farawayeyes said...

Thanks Matt and DL. I keep learning.

I see here one of the (my) big problems. How to get enough info across to intrigue(and Wow) an agent, in a few words while not confusing them or your story line.

Some great suggestions for minor changes, that make big differences.

S.A. Larsenッ said...

As always, Matt has done a thorough job. :)

Don - I agree with Matt about the first two sentences being a hook. Otherwise, you've included all the main ingredients to produce a fab query. Just a little tweaking is needed. :)

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Tenses are tough but you have to watch switching back and forth, especially in a piece of writing so small.

Tiana Smith said...

I agree with your critique. I like the letter overall, but wish I had a better sense of the antagonist and his motives. It's an intriguing letter though!

Tracy Jo said...

I am too much of a beginner to make suggestions or give my opinion...someday! Thank you, DL and Matt for putting yourselves out there so people like me can learn. You guys rock!

Barbara Watson said...

Whew! I staggered a minute at the 'no present tense' comment, thinking I'd done mine all wrong. I have no other wisdom to add at this point; things have been covered. Thanks, DL and Matt, for helping us all learn.

Brinda said...

I've already given DL my thoughts on his query. It's great to see others' opinions on this query. It's a TERRIFIC book. I love this series on your blog, Matt.

Eric W. Trant said...

I like the tone. I agree with Matt on tense. I prefer 3rd person.

I would think carefully about the Wizard/curtain/Kansas sentence. My opinion is to nuke it. I had to re-read it because I wondered what they were doing in Kansas in the first place.

Also, drop all exclamation points, always, even in your manuscript, and use only under the extremest of circumstances!


I remember you posted a critique request last year on this same piece. Was it here? Where did I read it? But I remember the Knight's motto, and it was a frat, right?

What does that tell you, DL?

It tells you the story is memorable, because I don't remember shit.

Good job, better luck.

- Eric

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

When I think of "The Voice" as you mention here, I can only think of one thing...that it's on NBC following the Superbowl or something like that.

I'm sure that's "the voice" by which you are speaking, right?

Jessica Salyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jessica Salyer said...

Thanks for sharing your letter with us DL. Great critique Mathew. I haven't written a query letter yet, so I've been trying to guess what Matt will say. I got two things right, the tense change and the antagonist (didn't like the word fiend). With a few minor tweeks should be great. Good job DL.

Nancy Thompson said...

Yeah, that comment about present tense threw me, Matthew. Queries should always be third person, present tense.

Don, you have many great comments here and I agree with them all. One thing though, you should try to keep your adjectives (and adverbs obviously) to the barest minimum. Let the action of the verbs set the tone and create urgency. This will reflect well on your manuscript, as well.

And I think you can tighten up your sentences considerably, rephrase and eliminate all unnecessary words. Make each as short and concise as possible. If you do that, you can sneak more info in about those mysterious numbers. Personally, I think the hook paragraph should end after the motto, then start the next by backtracking into who Steven is. Delete all last names and only use city names, not states.

Try to keep your ENTIRE query to 250 words +/-. Right now, you're closer to 400. When printed in formal letter format (not email format), you should be able to fit the entire thing onto one sheet of paper, including the date, all addresses, and salutations.

All in all, I love the sound of your story! I write thrillers, too. We are few and far between! I wish you the best of luck and thank you for sharing.

Karen Baldwin said...

There are so many comments I can't think of anymore to add. I will say I agree with Rachel and I don't think it's a thriller.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

JeffO hit my major concern with DL's query: It sounds like a very concise synopsis to me, rather than a baited hook for the agent.

Rather than tackle the story in sequence by "beginning with the beginning," DL might want to consider hitting the reader with a one line hook. (A vicious attack on an old college buddy draws Lee into the world of cybercrime and a school shooting.) Then back up a little and explain how Lee gets involved with Dianne, his friend's boss, in an investigation of a crime more complicated than it first appears.

I guess I'm saying, consider an approach that's not strictly linear and resembles what you might find on the back cover of the book. You might find this eliminates the need to explain so much of the plot, and will give you a chance to show off your style and bait a hook for a book the agent has to request in order to read. Make sense?

Julie Musil said...

I'm here to learn from everyone, so I can't really add to what's already been said. Nice job on the letter, DL, and Matt, as always, great job on the critique. I learn so much whenever I stop by!

Abby Minard said...

Good job both Matt and DL. I was going to point out that I think most queries are present tense, are they not? But I saw someone else pointed that out too.

The poison part was too vague for me, and maybe explaining the numebers a little more would cut down on confusion? Other than that, it looks great, and Matt gave some really great suggestions.

Unknown said...

Lordy! I thought writing was hard. I can't wait until you critique my query...if I ever write one.

Jemi Fraser said...

Good advice Matt! I agree that DL's query is definitely on the right road and just needs a little polish :)

I only wonder about the present tense thing. As I understand it, present tense is the usual & expected tense.

Tina said...

I'm not familiar with query letters at all, but I sure want to read that book! Sounds exactly like the stories I most enjoy. Just stopping by at one my fellow hosts' hangout to say "hi".

Tina @ Life is Good

Co-Host of the April 2012 Blogging from A to Z Challenge

Twitter: #atozchallenge

alexia said...

Nice job, Don and Matt! I am very intrigued by this premise, which is the main point of a query letter. I agree with Matt's comments; I don't really have anything else to add.

Definitely a good point about voice in the query matching the voice and genre of your book. I noticed someone asked about this in the comments of my query, and you addressed this point at the beginning of the post.

Great job Matt and good luck with querying, Don!

Arlee Bird said...

Damn you're good Matt! I thought it was a fine query the way it was, but I think your suggestions are right. You are indeed a discriminating reader.

Wrote By Rote

Steve MC said...

Sounds good, but I was lost with how the poison is connected to the hacker, and then it seems to jump tracks again with the school shooting (especially since it wouldn't seem to tie into a cybercrime cover-up, such as a shooting at a bank, which might be a cover for something else).

And I'd cut "other" from "other offerings" or, better, do like Matt says.

Just read everyone else's comments, and thanks to DL for chipping in. Good luck!

ShaunaKelleyWrites said...

Really thorough, Matt. I agree on the numbers questions, but all in all, I want to read this book! The query does a good job of hooking me.

It's interesting, this is the fourth time this week past vs. present tense has come up on a blog, and there seem to be very few present-tensers in the world. I am one, and since I am chronologically challenged when I write, I tend to write in present for now and past for then... Which could be OCD over a style preference... I also always and an even number of chapters.

DL Hammons said...

Once again, thank you EVERYONE for all of the valuable comments. I'm going to use this input over the next couple days and take a scalpel to my query for some nips and tucks!

Enjoy your weekend!

Lydia Kang said...

I'm late coming to read this, and there have already been a lot of good comments here. I think a little tighter would be good, but the story sounds great. :)

Janet Johnson said...

Reading through the comments, I don't think there's much left for me to say. I agreed with some of the other commenters that you could cut words so it's less of a synopsis and more of a pitch. I liked their suggestions (is that vague enough for you?).

Still, I think you (DL) did a great job for starters. Queries are hard! And your book sounds interesting, so definitely a plus!

Deniz Bevan said...

Great critique, Matthew.
The one thing that jumped out at me was the number of proper nouns. There are lots of character names, place names, organization names. It seems like a lot to keep track of when reading a two paragraph pitch.

Anonymous said...

I think this is pretty well done although I entirely agree with the fiend line. When I read that I was picturing some sort of sci fi creature and I am not sure that is exactly what was meant. Matt those were awesome suggestions!

Weaver said...

Another excellent critique, Matt. I especially appreciate your discussion on voice and how all queries shouldn't sound the same because they need to match their genres.

Unknown said...

Coming to this very late, but overall this is great letter that I think just a few minor changes would set to rights.

No question marks or exclamation points. Every sentence should end with a period. In the second paragraph I think you can eliminate "and distrustful of outsiders..." They're reeling so all of that after is implied.

I also think that fiend should be changed to psychopath or something more contemporary sounding.

Overall this is great and I wish you all the best with this story and query.