Workshop Wednesday

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: May 04 2011

By repeated request we’ve started Workshop Wednesday. It will definitely play out through 2011, and beyond that we’ll just have to see. We’ve received well over 200 queries at this point, but we are choosing at random, so don’t be afraid to participate as per the guidelines in our original post.

For anyone wanting to comment, we ask that you comment in a polite and respectful manner, and we ask that you be as constructive as possible. If you can be useful to the brave souls who submitted their query and comment on the query, that’s great. Please keep any anonymous tirades on publishing or other snarky comments to yourself. This is and should remain an open and safe forum for people to put themselves and their queries out there so that everyone can learn. I’m leaving comments open and open to anonymous posters, as I always have; don’t make me feel the need to change that policy.

And for those who have never “met” Query Shark, get over there and do that. She’s the originator of the query critique, the queen, if you will.

I know that for the workshop some will be using different methods of sending the query, but I am still going to remind you to use a greeting and the agent’s name whenever possible.

Forty-eight hours into their Moroccan vacation, Julie’s best friend walks out of their hotel room and disappears, leaving only a terse note apologizing for, but not explaining, her behavior. Exhausted and furious, but habitually dependent on her friend, Julie waits as requested.

Indentations are not necessary in paragraphs if you are using extra lines between paragraphs. In other words, there’s no need to indent here. [Though the indents do not appear here, they appeared in the original query.]

I like this opening. It definitely grabbed my attention.

Several days pass and Fay doesn’t return. Julie’s anger turns to worry; worry turns to fear when Julie realizes she is being followed. Then, a vicious attack meant for Julie kills an innocent woman. Julie bolts.

Still good. I’m still reading.

She has learned enough snooping through Fay’s luggage to guess her destination is a remote village called Taghabene. Convinced that Fay is heading into danger and fueled by the adrenalin rush of fleeing her attackers, Julie hurries south.

And still good. I’m still reading.

Fay has, however, already left Taghabene for a settlement in the desert. Julie hesitates. A heart defect keeps her dependent on regular medication and she’s unaccustomed to strenuous exercise, but no one else knows where Fay has gone. Only Julie can warn her. She has to risk her health or know she has failed her best friend. So Julie follows her into the black desert.

I think you need to explain first that Julie arrives in Taghabene only to discover that Fay has already left, and show a bit of her investigation as well as the atmosphere of the novel. How does she find out? How does she get to Taghabene? What’s it like there for her? I know it sounds like I’m asking for a lot, but I honestly think it’s a matter of reworking one sentence: “After a hot and dusty journey in the back of a jeep, Julie arrives in the small village of Taghabene, only to learn that Fay is gone. The room where she was staying has been abandoned and the only thing left behind is a map that shows…” See what a difference that makes? We get a sense of atmosphere and a bit about what Julie is doing and it doesn’t add that much more to the query.

The heart defect is where you start to lose me. For some reason this feels like a stretch to me, like you’ve tossed something into the story because you realized you need additional conflict. What kind of strenuous exercise is she getting and what happens to make Julie feel she needs to warn her? Why does she think Fay is in danger? Is it just the one attack? This is one of those incidents where I feel like I missed a paragraph or two that was supposed to take me to this point.

I also have a hard time buying that Julie has to warn her or risk her life when Fay has clearly abandoned Julie. Again, I’m not quite understanding what has these two young women traveling alone through the desert. And how did Julie figure out where Fay went when you said earlier that no one knew?

The rough terrain and extreme temperatures weaken her. She becomes disoriented and blunders into a military patrol on the Algerian border. Julie is locked up – along with Fay and three Moroccans. Too late she learns Fay’s objective. Her resentment at Fay’s betrayal, her sprained ankle, even transfer to a secret prison deep in the Sahara becomes inconsequential: Julie has only twenty-one pills, twenty-one days until her heart will beat out of control. All that matters is escape. Pooling their meager possessions, the captives pit their wits against the Moroccan army and the black desert in a fight for their lives.

Suddenly this story has taken a 180-degree turn for me. Originally it was about Fay mysteriously leaving and suddenly now it’s about Julie. I think you need to define Fay’s objective earlier. The sprained ankle kind of made me laugh. Really? She’s trekked through the desert alone, she’s been attacked, she’s seen a woman killed, she might potentially die, and yet she’s upset over a sprained ankle? I would also suspect that they are in danger of dying because they’re being held hostage, not just because her pills might run out, but maybe I’m wrong. I feel like you’re scratching the surface here, but I’m missing the real depth of the story.

Overall I think you started off well, but it just didn’t carry through for me. The query left me with more questions than answers and made me feel that there are a lot of plot points in your book that aren’t really working. I also didn’t get any real sense of your characters, and in women’s fiction especially it’s about character and the personal journey she’s going through. Julie comes across to me as someone I don’t get. You briefly mention that she’s dependent on Fay, but to me she just seems kind of ridiculous. I guess I don’t see enough of a reason for her to be tracking Fay or looking for her; I don’t see what leads to each new decision.

I also felt that this went from a woman’s journey to a military book, which took it in an entirely different direction for me. It might work if I had some sense of it coming, but as it’s written here each new step, the medication, the military, just feels like plot points are dropping in from nowhere and not really connecting.

THE BLACK DESERT is a 95,000-word work of women’s commercial fiction.

This is fine, although I don’t love your title. It doesn’t say women’s fiction to me.


22 responses to “Workshop Wednesday”

  1. Although I know all agents have different guidelines, this query seemed especially long to me. As Jessica mentioned, I'd think our MC would be concerned with being held hostage/killed as much as her medication running out. I see how you want to throw in a lot of conflict and a lot of obstacles, but some of them didn't convince me. But then, I'm hard to convince. Good luck with the revision.

  2. Avatar Collectonian says:

    I think there is an interesting story hidden in the query, but it is lacking some of those details that make it go from "hmmm, might be interesting" to "yeah, I want to read this". Echoing some of what Jessica noted, I found myself unable to understand any of Julie's motivations, the "why?" behind her actions. Fay left her alone while on vacation, and doesn't return. I can understand the annoyance, anger, worry, and then fear, but why not just let the police handle it? Do they not care? Does she not trust them? What about the US embassy?

    And why does Julie feel that "only she" can give Fay a warning. Fay took off and left her there, seems Fay already got all the warning she needed. What makes Julie so certain Fay has no idea she is in danger, and why does Julie even think she is? They tried to kill her, Julie, not Fay.

    I also find it hard to figure out why I should care what happens to Julie. It is stated that she is "habitually dependent", which at best makes her sound like a weekly, and at worse a weird one of those life sucking friends that you'd never go on a vacation with. Without the motivations or reasons as to why she engages in such risky and unusual behavior, it makes her seem rather dumb. I mean she treks into the desert, part of the largest desert in the world, with seemingly no knowledge about it and somehow expects to find her friend without any guide or help?

  3. Avatar Megan G.O. says:

    The beginning is definitely hook-y, and it kept me interested, but I think I got his with disbelief about Julie and the desert. You go out of your way to mention her heart condition w/r/t strenuous exercise. I'd argue that going into a desert, especially the Black Desert, does not so much constitute "strenuous exercise" as it does "rapid deterioration leading to death," and that's for someone without heart problems. Without the proper knowledge of how to survive in a desert, I'd peg Julie as dead within a day.

  4. For the part of the sentence "no one else knows where Fay has gone," I got the impression that what you meant was that Julie is the only one from back home who knows where Fay has gone. Fixing that could be as simple as changing a couple of words.

    On a larger scale, if you'll permit me to throw out a plot idea, what if the attack on Julie didn't fail entirely? Could she be captured by someone who believes she knows where Fay is and threatens to kill her if she doesn't take them to Fay? That would help solve the problem of Julie's lack of motivation for following Fay the abandoner.

    I agree that the genre seems more like a thriller or military fiction to me than it does women's contemporary.

  5. Avatar Laila Knight says:

    Interesting. When I started querying I did it by way of snail mail where everything needs to fit into a standard letter. Email query is fairly new to me. After reviewing The Black Desert, it seems there's a lot more information here than would fit into a paper letter. Is this the norm? I've been struggling to make everything short.

  6. While this is less than 300 words and does in fact fit on a single page, it feels a bit more synops-y than hook-y, which is why commenters are remarking on the length, I think.

    I'm not sure we need to know about Taghabene. Nothing really happens there except Julie getting pointed further to the desert. That gives you more room to explore character development.

    Too, if someone's following Julie, presumably because of whatever Fay's involved with, then why would Julie think she's left her tail behind and isn't leading them right to Fay? What exactly does she think she's going to warn Fay about?

    I bet this sounds more plausible in the book; the trick is making it sound plausible in your query.

    I don't think there's any reason why you can't have thriller aspects in women's fiction (or vice versa), but remember to concentrate on the conventions expected in whichever genre you choose to pitch this as. It sounds like you may want to develop two queries, pitching the novel in one as women's fiction and concentrating on the relationship between Julie and Fay, and the other as a thriller, concentrating on the mystery and the ticking clock.

  7. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I'm starting to think there might be someting wrong with me 🙂

    Because I love this query. I love when fiction has elements that come from nowhere…it's fiction and I'm a huge fan of "larger than life."

    The one thing I didn't notice was a love interest…or any mention of sex. (Sex never seems to be discussed on agent blogs, and yet it sells to many books.) I also like "formula," with a romanctic sub-plot, and I didn't see it here. But I buy what I read so far.

    Good work to whoever submitted this!

  8. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I was grabbed at the beginning and lost interest at the heart medicine. At first it was fast past and intriguing and IMHO it should have ended right before the medicine statement with a general summary of how this launched an adventure.

    Jessica, you keep asking for more info. I thought queries were supposed to be short and concise. If author tries to tell you everything you're asking for it seems the query will be too long. Or am I missing something here?

    But the book does sound interesting. kudos to the author and thanks Jessica for sharing your insights.

  9. Avatar Tricia says:

    I have nothing to add on the query premise that hasn't already been said, but on the issue of length, someone pointed out that it was near 300 words. That doesn't count the opening greeting and the ending paragraph with bio.

    So if the query felt long, it was because it was. The author needs to cut at least 100 words to fit the intro and bio.

  10. Avatar Diane J. says:

    I'm having a hard time with why Julie would go after Fay.

    Is there something Fay could have taken with her that Julie needs? Maybe her passport or an item that she has a deep sentimental attachment to.

  11. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I agree with the other comments. This starts off hook-y and then the heart medicine feels like too much.

    But what doesn't work for me here is there's no suggestion of an explanation of *why* Fay has disappeared in Morrocco. Many people go on vacation to Morrocco. Few of them disappear.

  12. Avatar S.P. Bowers says:

    It sounds like an interesting story and I really liked the first paragraphs. The end seemed a little convoluted to me. think that the reason the second part feels tacked on or out of the blue is because we're not sure what the plot line is. Is it Julie searching for Fay, or trapped in the desert and trying to escape?

    If it's the second one the first part of the query may need to get condensed to something like "When Julie's friend disappears on vacation she is forced to grab her heart pills ignore her condition which makes exercise dangerous and search her out." Shortening the first part would put the emphasis on their relationship and the struggle to survive.

    Keep trying, You can write an interesting query, just get it smoothed out and focused a little and you'll be on your way. Good luck.

  13. Avatar Rebecca Kiel says:

    I was interested in the beginning as well. As I read on, I found myself asking, "what is this about again?" then I had to go back to be sure I didn't miss anything. Perhaps flushing out the one major plot and sticking to that would be a good way to go. Things can get murky when additional details pop in, however crucial they seem to the writer.

    Also, I was surprised at the end that it was described as women's fiction. I really thought this was something else.

  14. Avatar Bonnar says:

    I’m the author, and I extend a huge thank you for all your constructive comments (and to Jessica for pulling me out of the hat this week). You have helped me immeasurably by identifying the weaknesses I need to weed out before submitting this.

    I would like to ask a follow-up question, hoping that someone will have time to answer.

    I picked women’s fiction as the genre on the advice of every single one of my writing friends: The novel has two female protagonists, with men playing only minor roles as incidental characters and villains. While the story is fast-paced, the underlying themes are of trust, betrayal, family, and forgiveness.

    Since I submitted this query for critiquing, I have become aware of a category referred to as a “female-driven thriller”, where the resourceful woman in a dangerous situation is in charge of her own destiny, as opposed to the damsel in distress model.

    So — is this a legitimate genre designation? If so, does it get any respect? “Women’s fiction”, as many of you pointed out, does not do justice to the plot. Any advice? Suggestions?

    Again, thanks. You guys are great!

  15. Avatar Anonymous says:

    It sounds like your friends told you it was women's fiction because it had women in it.

    Let's hope we've come further than that :).

    If it's a thriller, it's a thriller, no matter what the protagonist's plumbing situation. If it's a mystery, ditto. But (I'm the anonymous above) I do think you need to give us some idea of why Fay has disappeared.

    I've never heard the phrase "female-driven thriller" but it sounds like an unnecessary designation if your protagonist is named Julie.

  16. Just a nitpick:

    What time period is this set in? Because Morocco seemed like a pretty awesome place when I visited. They've always been a very open-minded, diverse country and they're having far fewer problems with extremism than other Islamic nations are (the recent bombing not withstanding.) So why is the army so scary in this novel?

  17. Avatar Robena Grant says:

    Check out the ThrillerFest website, there are some great articles, lists of current releases, etc., and these might give you an idea of how to market your story.
    Back to the query letter. It doesn't tell me if Fay is involved in something illegal, or if she is undercover, or if she's trying to solve a mystery.
    I find it hard to believe that Julie follows her to the desert, alone, and without notifying anyone. It would be better if she was held at knife, or gunpoint, and forced to travel to the desert to locate, or identify, Fay. Then we could see Julie's conflict, her distress, her cunning in how she would get out of this situation, and save her friend.
    Also, the medication conflict in the query, makes your heroine seem less than capable. You can leave it in the story, just don't mention it in the query. We understand that Fay is an ordinary citizen, and she is being thrown into extraordinary circumstances, but the reader needs to believe that Fay will be strong enough, capable enough to be the heroine.

    Thanks for sharing, and good luck.

  18. Avatar Robena Grant says:

    Ooops! I meant Julie, in the last paragraph. That's what I get for rambling on and on. ; )

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    "Any advice? Suggestions?"

    I think it needs a sexy, driven love angle somewhere…even a sub-plot.

    Mae West wasn't joking around when talked about her diamonds and she said, "Honey, goodness had nothing to do with it."

  20. Avatar Bonnar says:

    If you google "the disappeared" "western sahara", you will see the political context of the MC's plight. (No amount of tweaking allows this relatively unfamiliar political struggle to be introduced in the query.)

  21. @Bonnar: I don't think you need to fully explain the predicament, but at least hint at it. And it does seem to be the backbone of what's going on.

    With license taken as to the actual story line, may I suggest something along these lines:

    Dear Agent:

    Forty-eight hours into their Moroccan vacation, Julie’s best friend walks out of their hotel room and disappears, leaving only a terse note of apology and a single plea: wait. Furious at being abandoned, Julie rifles through Fay's luggage and finds what may be a clue: a newspaper scrap about a member of the Polisario Front missing since last month.

    After several days, Julie’s anger turns to worry, which turns to fear when Julie realizes she's being followed. When a vicious attack meant for Julie kills an innocent woman, Julie bolts.

    From past research, Julie knows three things: The Moroccan government may be behind the attempt on her life and be helping people disappear, and Fay is now likely one of "the disappeared." With over 500 advocates for the Front still missing, it isn't likely the American consulate will be much help unless she can bring them proof, preferably with a location. A daunting thought for someone whose most courageous act to date has been relocating bathroom spiders.

    Scared, but motivated by deep friendship, she heads for the desert — and blunders into a military patrol on the Algerian border. Thrown into the same prison that holds Fay and three Moroccans, Julie's relief at finding her friend alive is soon soured by resentment at Fay's betrayal. As the army prepares to transfer the prisoners to a secret prison deep in the Sahara, Julie has to put past hurts behind. Only escape matters now. Pooling their meager possessions, the captives pit their wits against the Moroccan army and the Black Desert in a fight for their lives.

    THE BLACK DESERT, 95,000 words, is women’s fiction with elements of suspense.


  22. I'm a bit late to the conversation, but I'll weigh in anyway. The beginning of this query really had me hooked, even though this doesn't sound like something I'd normally read, and at first I wondered if it was going to turn into something like that Liam Neeson movie…"Taken", I think it was? Mainly because of the two girls traveling, one seeming kind of flighty, but then it got interesting.

    However, I have to agree that a few of the plot points feel thrown in. Maybe they work better in the longer narrative, but in the query they need some explanation, or at least some reordering. For example, if Julie has a heart condition, shouldn't that have been affected by the adrenaline rush and subsequent fleeing from the first attack? And seriously, why doesn't Julie call the embassy or something? It seems like her friend just abandoned her, and I'm not sure how she learns about the danger or why she thinks she should handle warning Fay about it. If my friend left me like that and then I discovered there was danger, I'd assume she already knew and would try to get someone in authority to help me.