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.


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!)

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