Monday, June 2, 2014

Wordcraft -- Spawn of the QueryShark, part I

Several months ago, I found an article at the DFW Writers Conference site about a query contest. All it involved was writing a purported query to a literary agent or editor for a classic novel. The prize was nice--a free critique of a query letter about the contestant’s real novel by agent/author Donald Maass. And there were no fees. My kind of contest.

I sent in an entry, then forgot about it until May, when I learned from DFW blogger Tex Thompson that my entry was a finalist. In a moment of dazed joy, I promised to post the query and Maass’s comments online for the edification of other writers. I’d thought I’d done a pretty good job. Wrong! But in the interest of helping other writers, here’s the whole thing, with Maass’s comments and what I learned from them.

Originally, Thompson had posted that if contestants really wanted to learn how to craft a query letter, the place to go was the blog of literary agent Janet Reid, a.k.a. the Query Shark, who “ruthlessly (yet generously!) tears apart query letters to help beginning writers improve their craft. Do yourself a favor and read the whole archive.”

I recommend QueryShark.  As happens all too often with Blogger, I can't get a working link to Reid's blog, but you should be able to get it to come up by typing or into a search engine.  In the meantime, see what 
QueryShark has spawned.



Dear Agent:

What recovering alcoholic Emma Farouk wants more than anything is to keep her disabled daughter, Suzy, safe. She figures she’s on track to do that. She’s been clean and sober for more than a year. She’s now married to a long-time friend. And her first husband, the one whose name is listed as “father” on Suzy’s birth certificate, is recently, conveniently dead.

DM: I like that opening “everything is good” paragraph and the subtle ways it signals that everything is not going to stay okay.

But Emma’s new husband, Dr. Jilani (Jim) Farouk, has problems. Ever since he finished medical school, he’s sent money to Pakistan to support his widowed mother. Now, federal agents have begun to question why he keeps sending payments years after his mother’s death. If Jim could bring himself to tell the truth about the long-ago rodeo accident that killed his best friend, the feds would back off. But it’s a truth that could ruin his career.

DM: Lost me here. The money mysteriously going to Pakistan is great but then…a secret surrounding a rodeo death? Huh? How are those things connected? (You might make the mystery of that connection the point of the paragraph.) Also, you have stopped telling Emma’s story here, you’re reporting a plot complication. Say (briefly) how this impacts Emma.

Then early parole frees Emma’s violent ex-boyfriend--and Suzy’s unacknowledged father--Sherman McMillan. He wants his daughter. He’s not going to let Emma’s new husband or even Suzy’s own fragile emotional state stop him from gaining custody. And that’s the one thing Emma won’t allow.

DM: Villain wants daughter back, big problem for Emma. Well, okay. The problem is sad, and hopefully scary, but also not particularly special. Is there a twist? Is the villain, say, violent in one particularly gruesome way? Also, paragraph 2 and 3 aren’t connected. I feel like this needs one more paragraph to circle back to Emma, her challenges and changes, to tie it all together.

WILD HORSES is an 80,000-word contemporary suspense novel set in Texas and Wyoming and told from multiple viewpoints.


Maass started out with kind words about the opening paragraph. But as his next comments indicate, my following paragraphs squandered the limited space of a standard one-page query by straying into subplot territory. And of course, I gave the villain too little credit. In the next verstion, I'll to stay focused on the main character and conflict, as Maass suggests in his final “tie it all together“ comment.

I wasn’t the only contestant to receive a critique from Maass. Another finalist, Kim Moravec, also received a critique about her query. Next Monday, she shares her query on her YA thriller, Finnegan’s Awake, with Maass’s comments and her own insights.

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