Rock Your Query: sample critique, “Dead On Arrival”

I critique a lot of proposal packages for clients who want to improve their query letter and synopsis prior to submitting to agents and editors.  I thought I’d show you guys a peek under the hood of how an actual critique works.

(Note:  this is going to be a regular feature, for both query letters and synopses, and blurbs.  If you’re interested in participating, please email Rebeca, assistant extraordinaire.  Please note, I’ll be limiting it to around twelve or so!)

So our first victim — er, volunteer — is the brave John Birch.

To give you a little background, John’s novel was awarded an honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest annual contest for Best Self-Published Novel in 2002.  Since then, he’s decided to pursue traditional publishing, but he’s been having trouble getting favorable responses.

Here is his original letter:

Dear. Mr.

I’m writing to offer you Dead on Arrival, a finished suspense novel set in Malaysia and Thailand. Most of the book takes place in Kuala Lumpur and Malacca in 1985, when  Malaysia was facing a national Dadah crisis. Dadah is the Malay word for narcotics, and many people were – and still are – regularly hanged there for possession of more than half an ounce of heroin.

The protagonist is Mike Baxter, who until recently was a British Army captain. In his first civilian job he’s sent to Malaysia to investigate the alleged suicide of the chairman’s son, who was the general manager there. His death is  followed by the sudden disappearance there of the dead man’s adult daughter. Baxter’s antagonists are two competing tongs, centuries-old secret societies that mastermind a miscellany of crimes in Southeast Asia. They are exporting heroin to the US and Europe, hidden in life-size, fake antique Buddhist figures.

The book is uniquely authentic because while working in Malaysia for two years I knew Larry Chow, the commissioner of the country’s anti-narcotics police division, who opens doors for me to DEA agents in both Malaysia and Thailand. As a former member of an Army Reserve bomb disposal Regiment, I have a sound knowledge of the weapons and explosives that feature in the book.

About me, I’m a British writer, permanently resident in New York City. Educated at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, I’m a former infantry captain and colonial policeman and, most recently, a senior vice president in what was then the world’s largest PR group. I have published short fiction and non-fiction in newspapers and magazines in the US, UK and Asia, and have worked on assignments in more than 30 countries on four continents. In the past few years I’ve completed three advanced fiction writing courses at New York University and the New School. I’m an experienced public speaker and presenter.

I’m attaching a slightly more detailed synopsis of this 72,000-word book, and have already written the first 12 chapters of a second Mike Baxter series adventure, “A Corpse Called Icarus,” set on the island of Cyprus, where I also lived and worked for four years.

Please let me know if you’d like me to send you the first chapters.

With best wishes,

 John S Birch

My critique of the query letter.

This letter has some good elements, but I think that it focuses a bit too much on minutiae, and not enough on the actual character arc for the protagonist.  Here are some suggestions for how to improve the hook and the format.

1.  Opening paragraph. 

Right now, the opening paragraph goes into detail about Kuala Lumpur and the Dadah crisis there.  While the image of people being “regularly hanged” for more than a half-ounce of heroin is visceral, this is not the place for that.  The opening paragraph should include:

  • Why you chose the editor, so he knows this isn’t a shotgun mass mailing. (Granted, this is a form query, with no one in particular targeted, but it’s still good to remember.)
  • What exactly you’re offering.  In this case, he’s offering Dead on Arrival, a suspense novel, complete at 72,000 words. (Sidenote:  72,000 words feels a little short for traditional suspense genre offerings.)
  • If there’s a comparison novel or author, this is a good place to include it, not because you want to seem like you’re copying anyone (you’re not) but because agents and editors like to get a shorthand grasp of how they’d market it.  It also shows you know what your story’s strengths are.  There’s a difference between the thrill ride of, say, Robert Ludlum, the twists and turns of Dan Brown, and the restrained cloak and dagger of John LeCarre.

2.  Mini-synopsis paragraph.

The second paragraph is usually the mini-synopsis.  If you’ve read Rock Your Query, you’ll probably recognize this.  I advocate including three things in the mini-synopsis:  a description of the protagonist, the story question, and the conflict.

  • Description of the protagonist.  We know that he’s Mike Baxter, who “until recently was a British Army captain.”  He’s now investigating the alleged suicide of the chairman’s son.  The problem here is, I don’t know why his previous experience as a captain is important, and I don’t know what his job is, or why he’s investigating the suicide.  Therefore, I don’t know why it’s going to be crucial for him to figure out what’s going on.  Since this is his first civilian job, is he afraid of not making it in the outside world?  Was he dishonorably discharged, and now trying to prove himself?  Why is this important to him, and why do I, as a reader, care?
  • The story question.  This has been marketed as a suspense novel.  So we’ll want to be clear:  is the novel about Baxter unraveling the truth behind the “suicide” and discovering the drug smuggling and tong warfare?  Or is it about him knowing from relatively early on that the tongs are involved, and then stopping the drug smuggling?
  • The conflict.  Presumably the tongs are going to make him solving the case difficult.  That said, how does it escalate?  Do they make attempts on his life?  Continue killing more people?  I would suggest hinting at the midpoint and third act escalations, to show that Mr. Baxter is about to face truly serious and growing opposition, as well as increasing stakes.

3.  Closing paragraph — writer credentials.

Don’t know about you guys, but John sounds like a fascinating guy to me!  🙂  That said, there’s a lot of detail here, and I would suggest trimming it down a bit, so the focus remains on the story.  I’d also hold off on mentioning the sequel at this point, and get them hooked on this story first.  He can discuss his background as a public speaker and V.P. of a PR firm after the story’s set.  It might seem counter intuitive — after all, promotion is key — all the promotion background in the world isn’t going to help if he doesn’t get the agent to the story.  Promotion details like “I have a 10,000 person newsletter list” or “I have 50,000 followers on Twitter” or “I write a newspaper column that is read by x readers a day” would be more important.  Or, conversely, if you have impressive self-pub sales numbers, here’s the place to add that.  I wouldn’t include the Writer’s Digest thing necessarily, since it’s over 10 years old, but if it is going to be included, it’d be here.

Bonus:  “In my version of your query letter…”

If I were to revise this, I’d suggest it look something like:

Dear ____________,

I recently read in [whatever blog, Writer’s Market, etc.] that you’re looking for suspense novels [set in exotic locales, whatever.]  I think my novel, Dead on Arrival, might fit your interests.  A suspense in the vein of [comparable authors], it is complete at 72,000 words.

Mike Baxter is determined to prove himself in his first civilian position since leaving his captaincy in the British Army.   His first assignment: go to Malaysia, and investigate the suicide of a chairman’s son.  What should be a cut-and-dried case is complicated as Baxter discovers that the dead man’s adult daughter has suddenly gone missing.  As he delves deeper into the mystery, that one suicide leads him to artifact smuggling, heroin trafficking, and two ancient, rival tongs… centuries old secret societies, whose war threatens not only Baxter’s life, but the lives of those around him.

I’m a former infantry captain and colonial policeman. While working in Malaysia, I was able to get first-hand research with DEA agents and the commissioner of the anti-narcotics police.  I have published short fiction in newspapers and magazines in the US, UK, and Asia, and have worked on assignments in more than thirty countries.

Enclosed is a detailed synopsis for Dead on Arrival [plus any partial pages if requested], per your guidelines.  I would be happy to provide the complete manuscript on request.  Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

John S. Birch

And that’s it.

I hope this look at how a query letter breaks down is helpful.  This is my approach — I’m sure there are millions of others, but I’ve had a good success rate with clients, using this “template.” (And thanks again, John, for agreeing to share your work, and for being an all around good sport!)

Please feel free to share this post, via Tweet or Facebook like, if you think others might find it helpful.

How to Figure Out Your Book’s Genre

colorfiles“How do I know what genre my novel fits into?”

I see this question a lot.

It’s not that authors aren’t familiar with genres — although with the proliferation of sub-genres cropping up daily, it’s hard to keep up — but often it’s because they feel their books could fit more than one genre.  They don’t want to be pigeon-holed.  They don’t want to miss a potential audience.  At the same time, picking a genre is expected.  What to do?

First:  get familiar with what’s out there.

One of the easiest ways is to look at a bookstore, whether it’s online or bricks-and-mortar, and see how they classify fiction.  This changes a bit over time.  (Anybody else remember when they had a “Chick Lit” section at Borders?  Hell, anybody remember Borders?)

Here are some of the most common umbrella genres.

  • Action/Adventure — stories including epic journeys, lots of conflict, high stakes, some violence.
  • Erotica — stories of sexual exploration.
  • Fantasy — stories usually involving magic, other worlds, mythological/mystical figures.
  • Horror — stories that invoke fear.
  • Literary Fiction — stories with a focus on the quality of the prose over the narrative arc.
  • Mystery — stories that involve solving a crime, usually a murder. 
  • Thriller/Suspense — stories of high tension that can involve either action or mystery.
  • Romance — stories about love/intimacy.
  • Sci-fi — stories usually involving technology, aliens, science-related alternative worlds.
  • Westerns — stories taking place in America’s “Old West,” often with focus on justice. 
  • Women’s fiction — stories about women experiencing emotional growth.  Primary emotion:  hope.

There are obviously lots of sub-genres for most of these categories. Also, I’ve left out Children’s/YA/New Adult fiction, simply because you can have these same umbrella genres within those categories — it’s more about the age of the protagonists rather than the subject matter, and the targeted age of the reader.  So you can have YA paranormal romance, or Middle Grade sci-fi, or what have you.

Next, look at the “genre qualities” of your book.

Did you have a genre in mind when you wrote it?  If not, given what you’ve just learned about the genres, and what readers expect from each genre, where might it possibly fit?

Most importantly, which of the above audiences would be the most happy with what you’ve written?

Example:  Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation

It’s a book about two sisters who go to a small town to make a film.  It involves a love story. There is also a mystery.  There is also a decent amount of sex.

That said, it’s not really a mystery, despite the dead body and various machinations as the murderer is discovered. It’s not that difficult to solve, and it’s not the primary focus.  Mystery readers, who are driven to figure out “who did it?” will not be satisfied at the dilution of the mystery with elements that they’d see as secondary: the love story takes up way too much real estate.

It’s also not an erotica.  While the sex is steamy, the focus is more on falling in love and emotional intimacy than sex as a vehicle of character development: there are character development scenes with the heroine and the hero’s child, for example, or the sisters discussing their past.  For someone looking to read erotica, this would seem extraneous, and possibly slow-paced or boring.

It is definitely a love story.  The mystery elements and the sex both serve to reinforce the growth of the love between the protagonists.  So the genre that makes the most sense is romance.

Another example:  Jim Butcher’s Dresden File series.

The protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a detective, solving cases that usually involve murder on the mean streets of Chicago.  He tackles a lot of epic adventures, giving it elements of Action/Adventure.

That said, he is also a Wizard.

They are definitely mysteries, taking a page out of the classic noir novels.  It would definitely satisfy a lot of mystery readers… if they were also amenable to the magical/mystical features of Fantasy, which many might not be.  Same with the action/adventure reader set.

Fantasy readers — specifically Urban Fantasy readers — would be very satisfied by the other-worldly aspects, the world building, and the magic and mystical figures.  The action, adventure and mystery all work with the fantasy element.  Harry shoots things with fireballs and magic spells as well as shotguns.  He solves mysteries that may or may not involve fairies, necromancers, or mythological gods.  It’s immersive, with world building so thorough that you are completely drawn in.  Urban Fantasy is the best fit.

Finally:  identify why you want to know.

There’s a difference between choosing a genre for a potential agent, for example, and choosing a category for a self-publishing listing.

When you’re writing a query, you want to show the agent that you have a sense of who your target audience is and where your book would most likely sell.

You might think “but isn’t that the agent’s job?”  and indeed, said agent may have some opinions on how to better position your work.  But if you don’t have any clue, and you just dump a book in his/her lap with the expectation that they will read through it and glean the positioning, it’s a harbinger of things to come.  Tacitly saying “but that isn’t my job” when it comes to something as relatively simple as genre choice suggests that you’re really going to balk when it comes time to actually  market and promote the thing.

For an agent, choose the most likely readership. 

As I mentioned, mystery readers could enjoy Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. But they aren’t the most likely readership.  An agent will want to know what’s the most likely readership — who is the mostly likely to seek out this particular type of book, buy this type of book, and enjoy this type of book.  Not someone who stumbles across this book and decides to give it a try on a whim, enjoying it more than he expected.

For self-publishing, you’re looking for the most likely category, and the least populated fit.

When uploading a digital self-published release, you’re allowed to choose several categories/genres for your novel.  These are pretty fluid: bookstores like Amazon change their listings of sub-genres all the time, so it’s a bit of a moving target.  But what you want is to choose a broad genre that fits your right reader’s expectations, just like you’d choose for targeting an agent.  Then, you’re also going to choose a niche, preferably one that isn’t heavily populated, that also fits your novel.

If you have a mystery that involves a police detective, you could pick “Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense” as a category.  Looking it up under Kindle Books, however, you will notice that it has 107,974 results offered — that’s how many ebooks use the same category.

The odds of you getting in the top 100, where many readers look for new authors, or anywhere near a “category bestseller” that will kick on the Amazon Recommendation Engine, is pretty paltry.

Look at the sub-category “Police procedurals” and  the number of books specifically categorized as such drops to 4,844.

To really get specific, if you had a “cat sleuth”?  The number of books drops to 23.  You’d be in the top 100 by default!  (Remember, if you don’t have a cat sleuth, don’t select it just to get a better category ranking.  Getting bad reviews from dedicated niche readers who feel mislead isn’t worth the ranking boost, in my opinion.)

Remember, you can generally pick two categories.  Try to hit one broad category, and one narrow niche.

It’s more art than science.

There isn’t a hard-and-fast way to figure this out, but hopefully these tips will give you a simplified approach to looking at what emotional satisfaction your work provides for genre audiences, and how to move forward.  Don’t be afraid to take a stand — and don’t worry if you have to amend your stance later!

What do you think about the genre listings?  How would you categorize your work?

Please leave a comment — I’d love to hear what you think!