I was particularly excited to be named as a finalist in the DFW Writers Conference Query contest, thanks to my rewrite of a hypothetical query letter for Finnegan’s Wake. It meant that Donald Maass, New York super-agent and author of Writing the Breakout Novel would critique my query. And dammit, it was a good query. I’d spent a lot of effort learning to write queries, and this particular one had undergone some intense critique over at the AgentQuery website. That is not to say that every critiquer there liked it. There were some who thought the plot was confusing and frankly, unbelievable.
To be noticed by an agent in a sea of thousands, the query must be short, snappy, and crystal clear. Faced with an 80,000-word novel, it is difficult to tease out the critical threads that will both make sense and fascinate an agent. My plot, in particular, relies on a couple of bizarre turns of fate that do have a basis in reality (I do my research, honest) but don’t follow the tropes common in modern fiction.
This is the final query I sent to Donald Maass, with his comments:
DM: This is unusual and interesting, but…uh, doesn’t the FBI have plenty of money to run undercover investigations? Would they really hire a teenager to run online scams? (Imagine the Congressional hearings!) I know you’re setting up a twist but the synopsis at this point is far fetched and working against you. So, maybe play on that very far-fetched quality something like this: “…keeps the nation safe in dangerous times—or so Rain believes.”
Then, when her scams attract the attention of the real FBI, Rain discovers her dad never worked for them. He’s nothing but a con man – keeping her earnings for himself and killing anyone who discovers the truth.
DM: That’s a fine twist but is it really possible that a talented teen hacker wouldn’t figure out that her dad isn’t really an FBI agent? Really? I’ll accept that he’s a talented con but you need to show me a smidgen of proof here to alleviate the oh-come-on feeling I’m getting.
But the terrorists Rain’s been hunting? They’re real. No one with a badge believes her anymore, and unless Rain abandons her desire for revenge [DM: Revenge against whom?] and finds the bombers before the end of the day, one hundred thousand people at the State Fair of Texas will die.
DM: Cool story but this query is heavy on plot, light on what it all means for Rain. I’d like to feel something for her. How does she reconcile to the discovery that her dad is a crook and murderer? Is that even possible?
FINNEGAN’S AWAKE [DM: Cute title!] is a 78,000 word YA thriller, loosely inspired by British conman Robert Hendy-Freegard, who impersonated an MI5 agent for more than a decade. The math and computer hacks throughout the book are informed by my career in computer science.
DM: Ah, nice. The professional close to the query is brief and good.
Donald Maass is an incredibly polite critiquer, and there's a lot of little gems for me to take away from this (he liked the title, yay!), but the upshot is that this is a query that is short and snappy, but not crystal clear. Ironically, it echoes some of the harsher comments I received from that unhappy critiquer at AgentQuery. After researching the comments he'd left for others, I'd decided to ignore his comments because I sensed a troll. It goes to show, even if you don't like the delivery of some criticism, you ignore it at your cost.
When Robert Hendy-Freegard's victims were discovered, they were living in extreme poverty, malnourished, isolated, and terrified. Despite her technological knowledge, Rain begins the story in a similar state, and I think this is perhaps the key thread that is missing from the query. By the end, her single-minded moral code and ability to endure discomfort helps her save thousands of lives. I just have to figure out how to weave that in without preaching or telling.
And, oh yeah, I should probably mention that Finnegan is a fish.
(Next Monday, mystery writer/instructor Daniel J. Hale takes a journey through the plotting of a novel.)