Saturday, February 18, 2012


Guess the Plot

ing Sky

1. A backyard chef glimpses a murder in his neighbor's house through the smoke and haze of his Weber grill.

2. Jaws meets Wolfen in this story of a fledgling private eye drawn into the murky worlds of Internet security and an extinct human race.

3. As trials begin on a new sub-orbital passenger jet, two rival test pilots fall in love. Can they keep their budding romance from their husbands?

4. All life below the shimmering locusts' exoskeletons could cease to exist if Jack and Jill do not get up the hill fast enough with DDT, and expose the sun . . . above the shimmering sky.

5. Three desperate men and a love-starved camel set off on an impossible quest beneath the burning sands of a world turned upside-down.

6. Dustin, a sardine who feels trapped in his school, builds a capsule to help him become the first sardine to fly . . . above the shimmering sky.

Original Version

Dear Ms. Speltagnet,

What if, on a calm day near the beach, a friend's death and police suspicion raised a carnival-house mirror to separate a new life from your old? [What if, we start this query with the second sentence?] What if your other friends and coworkers remained precisely whom you'd thought them to be—but with agendas askew, their focus suddenly obscure? [I meant the third sentence.] Would it mean you had fallen into a new world, beyond the looking-glass? [Yes, I believe I have.] Or…could you have simply missed the truth all along?

Owen Tremaine, 28-year-old founder of a small software company in Corpus Christi, Texas, has spent the last year trying to reinvent himself as a private investigator. But he never expected to need his new skills quite so badly. When his past reaches out to pull him back, the stakes include not only his own life and the lives of those he loves but also the fate of a missing 12-year-old girl, the future of personal security on the Internet, and the hopes of a supposedly extinct people. [The fate of Cro-Magnon Man rests in his hands?] The story encompasses cutting-edge software development, implications of recent anti-terror legislation, and a unique interpretation of local Native American history. In ABOVE THE SHIMMERING SKY (102,000 words), JAWS meets THE NET…via WOLFEN. [Jaws? Are there sharks? You haven't mentioned any sharks. Sharks would definitely improve this book. So would a wolfman. Is there a wolfman?] [If there's a wolfman in a book, it should be stated clearly, up front; it's sure to be a major selling point. The same goes for sharks. You're trying to make me want to read your book. What would I rather read about, sharks and wolfmen or Internet security, implications of legislation, and software development? That was a rhetorical question.] [Here's what I recommend: keep the sharks and the wolfman--make it two wolfmen, in fact--dump the software/private eye guy, and add some zombies, a brutal eunuch, a few ruthless vigilante sorcerers, and the Pooka of Leinster.] [You're probably thinking, But that would make it a completely different book! Exactly!]

Technical elements of the plot are based on my nearly two decades of professional software development experience, ranging from several startups to Dell Computers and a telemedicine project for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. I have been visiting Corpus Christi for years, and have fallen in love with the area. [Try visiting in August, then get back to me.] My professional writing experience to date has been business-related, including advertising copy, press releases, technical documentation and one privately published "how-to" book (ghost-written very quickly for a client who had inadvertently shown the title in an infomercial). I have a second novel (PAGAN SECTS) in progress. [Change the title to Pagan Sex, and you'll quintuple your sales.]

I found your listiings at and, "Googled" your agency, and thought I might introduce myself. I see this project as commercial suspense with an underlying element of the supernatural (think Dean Koontz, though I make no claims as to quality). [Meaning it's not necessarily as good as Koontz? Or not necessarily as bad?]

Please let me know if you would like to see the manuscript, or a portion thereof. I also have a two-page synopsis available.

Thank you for your time.



Listing what's at stake and what the story encompasses doesn't draw me in unless you've set down a solid foundation. Your foundation is "When his past reaches out to pull him back." Totally vague. Specifically, what happened that puts lives, Internet security and Neanderthal Man at stake?

Here's what I actually recommend. Start with these two sentences:

Owen Tremaine, 28-year-old founder of a small software company in Corpus Christi, Texas, has spent the last year trying to reinvent himself as a private investigator. But he never expected to need his new skills so desperately.

Now comes the part you aren't going to like: tell us what happened! What requires the use of his new skills? Is the missing girl his case? Is there a villain trying to destroy the Internet? Are wooly mammoths wiping out Peking Man? Is there a seemingly insurmountable obstacle Owen must overcome to save the world? After you tell us the main things that happen in the book, if there's still some space, you can list a few boring things the book encompasses, and add:

Technical elements of the plot are based on my nearly two decades of professional software development experience, ranging from several startups, to Dell Computers, to a telemedicine project for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

But leave out Jaws and Wolfen and Dean Koontz.

Selected Comments

JTC said...Bill Gates does Sam Spade. Well, I don't mean DOES Sam Spade. I mean, well, I think you know what I mean. It seems like the main character will be taking a huge pay cut with that career move.

Jessica said...I'm still confused about Jaws. Why is the shark in there, and how did he get ahold of a computer? Wouldn't it shock him if the computer was underwater? Oh, maybe Jaws transforms into the wolfman and becomes a wolfshark. The upper body of a shark and the lower body of a wolf.

pjd said...It's interesting to see first query letters like this... back before I knew anything, I thought query letters were supposed to read like the blurbs you'd see on or publishers' own web sites. "A spellbinding tale of seduction, political intrigue, and a hamster's long journey to self-discovery." They NEVER give away the secret of what actually happens in the book. (The hamster gets eaten by the President's cat.)

First-query authors naturally go to publishers' book descriptions to learn how they talk about books, failing to realize that the audience for their query is completely different than the audience for the back jacket text.

kis said...The back-jacket text for some books is quite adaptable to a query letter (although I would avoid words like spellbinding, spectacular, sizzling, heart-rending, or any kind of dumb-ass hyperbole like that). Often, the premise of a book is laid out in three or four succinct sentences on the jacket. Yes, it is meant to leave the reader wondering. But a few more succinct sentences should fill in the blanks for a query letter. The problem is when a writer takes all the wrong aspects of the jacket-copy and comes up with something like this query. The trick is to be able to compress the basic idea/ plot/ premise/ characters of your book into something attention-grabbing.

And personally, when I see words like spellbinding, spectacular, sizzling, or heart-rending on the back cover of a book (unless it's in blurbs from reviewers, who obviously all use the same thesaurus) I put the damn thing down as fast as I can.

ann said...I really think the Alaska telemedicine project sounds a lot more interesting

Anon-in-a-million said...Oh my. That first paragraph is something else. Reminds me of a short story I had to read once, the individual words were fine, but the sentences never made any sense. Very hard story to critique without using the words WTF?

Anonymous said...Sure, there are low-hanging fruit for picking & slinging at me here, and some of them may be rotten, which can only add to the fun.

But I got another partial request today, using this query.

I don't think I have much else to say, though I was hoping for something more useful than ridicule from all this. Guess I went to the wrong place.

But what the heck. Keep havin' fun; it's good for you.


AlaskaRavenclaw said...

S/he had me at "ruthless vigilante sorcerers". Or would have.

150 said...

I think pjd's comment is right, and along with articles about really famous writers, explains why query letters are full of stuff that has no business being there.

Rashad Pharaon said...

I think there's some really constructive feedback from EE and several people. Granted, it's marbled in between jokes, but still--I don't understand why the author got defensive. It states in the submission rules that this is for entertainment purposes (but you nevertheless get good advice).

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Years ago, when I used to attend writing workshops, I remember participants who'd get defensive about any criticism they received. Often they'd counter by saying an agent had requested pages, or an editor had said the story was brilliant and that she would've taken it if it'd had more dragons, or something.

Years ago. Ask me if any of those writers ever got published.

We all hate to have our brilliance shot down. It's just human nature. But it's not successful writerly nature.

batgirl said...

Googling around with character names and key phrases, all I came up with was this blog and and links to this blog.
So if Shimmering Sky got published, the title, character names and identifying features were changed in editing.

150 said...

Maybe he never realized how useful ridicule can be.

batgirl said...

Probably the author got defensive because s/he secretly believed the letter (and the book) to be above criticism.
Nothing is, as a quick browse through Amazon reviews of bestselling and classic books will show.

The trick for writeres is deciding which criticism to listen to - and usually, in finding your own solutions to the problems spotted.