Dear Query Shark,
A killer always runs home. It’s instinct. But investigator Dean Goodnight knows most of those homes are broken beyond fixing. Dean’s the only Choctaw Indian in the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s office. So when his latest client’s crime orphans a young Choctaw boy, when his girlfriend starts pushing for a family, Dean follows his own gut: he runs.
Whoa! There's WAY too much going on here. You've got the killer running, Dean knowing, kid being orphaned, girlfriend kvetching, and Dean running.
You're trying to connect the dots in a splatter pattern here and it's not pretty.
When Olympic divers are scored, the two highest and lowest scores are tossed out, and the score is created from those remaining. When you dive into revisions here (oh, aren't I clever with the metaphors tonight!) toss aside the things that don't relate to the matters at hand.
Leaving the orphan with a C.P.S. volunteer named Becca Porter - caring for this kid’s not in the job description - Dean throws himself into the new case, looking for any evidence that might save his client’s life. To do so he’ll need to convince the victim’s sister, Aura Jefferson, to move past the anger haunting her since the murder.
At this point I don't know who's who or what's what. Who's important here? So far you've named or mentioned seven people. That's classic character soup.
He has his work cut out for him. Aura’s a proud black woman, a physical therapist who doesn’t take advice … she gives it. When Aura goes into a patient’s home, the goal is to teach him how to adapt to some devastating injury. So why is recovering from her own tragedy so difficult?
What? Now I'm lost. If this query came to me for consideration, I'd stop reading right here.
Her new borderline-bigot patient sure isn’t helping. Before he was paralyzed in a car crash, Cecil Porter dreamed of playing pro basketball, just like Aura’s brother did. Maybe this is why she tolerates the old man and his brother: “Big” Ben Porter, a charismatic huckster who’s got everyone in his pocket. Maybe even the district attorney prosecuting Dean’s client.
As Dean chases down leads, as Aura wrestles with the effects of prejudice and regret, as Ben tries to repair the damage Cecil’s accident has wrought on their relationship, Ben’s wife Becca Porter (Dean’s volunteer) uncovers a link between the orphan and her own traumatic upbringing.
Can these five strangers forget their differences, come together, and give this orphaned Choctaw boy a better future? Maybe. But first, they’ll each have to stop running from the past.
At 105,000 words, AMERICAN PRAYER is my first novel. It will appeal to fans of suspenseful, character-driven fiction such as Richard Price’s “Lush Life” or Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin”.
Ok, here's the Wikepedia plot summary for LUSH LIFE:
On the way home from a night of drinking, three men—cafe manager Eric Cash, bartender Ike Marcus, and a friend of Marcus'—are accosted by two muggers. Marcus is shot and killed. NYPD Detective Matty Clark winds up investigating the crime, and keeping an eye on Ike's distraught father Billy, whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic.
Cash is initially arrested for the crime, but later released when the accounts of other witnesses back up his own; his own behavior is affected as he has difficulty coping with the memory of the incident and the stresses of the police interrogation. Interwoven with the main plot are vignettes of the Lower East Side and the waves of immigrants that have come through there and lived in its tenements over the years.
There are a LOT of characters mentioned but we can keep them all straight and we know who the main guy is. If you need to mention more than one or two characters in your query, this is the way to do it.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
This is not a buttoned down query. This is a ragbag of remnants.
Time to revise, restyle, and resend.
Dear Query Shark,
It’s 1994 in Oklahoma City: the Waco siege is over, the OJ Simpson trial isn’t.When a single line appears at the top of a query it signals a log line or a hook.
This is neither. After reading the entire query the only thing this line tells me is the novel is set between April 19, 1993 and October 3, 1995. (More on this later.)
This is a classic example of why "Kill your darlings" (which begs to be a Raymond Chandler title) is good advice. This opening line is a good sentence. It seems to glow with promise.
But, it doesn't work. It doesn't work because it doesn't illuminate the novel. Thus it must die.
A good hook is not just an enticing sentence; it's an enticing sentence that illuminates the novel.
A young Choctaw boy named Caleb has just been orphaned by the criminal justice system, both parents jailed on separate murder and drug charges. Investigator Dean Goodnight’s job at the Public Defender’s office is to save the life of Caleb’s father at all costs. But the more Dean understands about this particular killer’s crime, the less he understands about himself - and his own Choctaw heritage.Have you come across the phrase "character soup?" This is getting close. Too many characters. Start with the main guy. Tell us what's at stake for him. When we see the choices he faces, it makes us care about him. Right now all you've got is set up.
Dean enlists four seemingly unrelated strangers into the investigation. There’s Aura Jefferson, the murder victim’s older sister and perhaps the angriest physical therapist in Payne County. Her borderline-bigot patient, Cecil Porter, who broke his spine in a car crash nearly fifty years ago. Cecil’s brother, “Big” Ben Porter, who’s not above bribing a few councilmen to bag the construction contract that will determine the city’s future. And Becca Porter, Ben’s wife, who discovers a link between the orphaned Choctaw boy Caleb and her own traumatic past.And this is classic character soup. We still don't have an inkling of the plot. That's crucial in a query. You've told us who the characters are but not given us a reason to care what happens to them.
Together, these five people might just be able to offer Caleb a new kind of life. But they had better hurry. Because now it’s 1995. On April 19 a bomb is going to go off, and life will never be the same.Again, this doesn't work. If the OKC bombing is the climax of the novel, you've got to get us interested in the people and events long before it happens. In fact, if it's the climax of the novel, it really has no place in the query. More on the log line at the start of the novel: The OKC bombing occurred on 4/19/95 after Waco and before the OJ Simpson verdict, yes. But those two events, and in fact the OKC bombing itself, are peripheral to the plot and thus should not be in a query letter.I can hear you saying somewhat perplexedly "It's not peripheral, it's the climax of the plot - the bombing changed everything." In a novel something always happens that changes everything. Whether it's the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the flood ravages of Superstorm Sandy, or the death of Old Yeller, something happens at the climax of a book to change the protagonist's world.Unless the protagonist performed the world changing act (ie shot Old Yeller) the specific event is superfluous to the plot. Thus it isn't in the query.In this case, the plot is what's at stake for the investigator if he doesn't help the kid. The plot doesn't depend on the OKC bombing; the world could change for a variety of reasons. It just happens to change this time because of the events of 4/19/95. The problem with using Waco and OJ and the OKC bombing here is that you're cloaking your query in buzzword events, rather than showing me what the book is about. It's a crutch. And the interesting thing here is that it's a crutch you don't need. You actually have an interesting concept. You obviously can write. What you haven't done is tell me what the book is about. That's a deal breaker in a query.
At 105,000 words, AMERICAN PRAYER is my first novel. It might appeal to fans of suspenseful, character-driven fiction such as Don DeLillo’s “Libra” or Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin”.It might isn't compelling. It will is the phrase you want here.
LIBRA was published in 1988. No matter how wonderful, it's not a book you'll use as a comp because it's 25 years old. Comp titles should always be new titles. New means within the last two years at best, five at most.
Thank you for your time and consideration.This is a great example of well-written query that doesn't work. A good query entices the reader to want more. Enticing means you tell us about the start of the book in a way that makes us want to read on.
This is all character set up, timeline and CNN headlines.
There are LOTS of queries that fall in to this category: well-written but ineffective.Take a look at the queries that got to YES. (There's a section on the left side of this blog with links to them.) Watch how those queries enticed me to read more.