Sunday, August 1, 2010

Query Revision 19

Face-Lift 716: A Storm Hits Valparaiso

I got my query into great shape [on Evil Editor's blog] in January, and I have been making revisions to the novel for the last few months and I am getting ready to start sending it out again. In the last round I had several partial requests and a few fulls, so I am hoping to take the next step this time.

In this version, I took out all the information about the meeting of Bolivar and San Martin and saved that for the synopsis. Agent feedback suggested my query lead them to expect a different book and I have been advised to focus more on the other characters (other than San Martin) in my query.

Revised version below.



Dear [AGENT]

I am seeking representation for A STORM HITS VALPARAISO, a 100,000 word novel of seven intertwining lives set during South America's independence struggle.

Catalina’s father is murdered by a sailor, leaving her to fend for herself in Santiago, but when Spain retakes the capital, she flees into the Andes. Diego is expelled from his home after a tragic accident, forced into a life of crime in Tucuman. Zé, a slave on a sugar plantation outside of Olinda, kills his master and stows away on a boat. Lord Cochrane is framed in the Great Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814, escapes prison and flees England to create Chile’s Navy. Jorge buries both of his parents then goes in search of Diego, joining the army in Tucuman. Pacha, freed from the death mines of Potosí by the advancing Argentine Army, enlists to protect his family. And San Martín deserts from the Spanish Army and is smuggled to London by the British Secret Service. Desperate to free his homeland, he must first free himself from his opium addiction. Forming a rag-tag army of Indians, freed slaves, runaways and ex-convicts, San Martín scales the Andes, liberates Santiago and attacks Lima by sea, frustrating Napoleon’s secret plan to escape his island prison and conquer South America.

A STORM HITS VALPARAISO, written and researched over three years in Peru and Argentina, may appeal to fans of Patrick O'Brian and Louis de Bernières. Thank you for your consideration, I look forward to hearing from you.


As an aside, I found myself focusing more on your commentary. Query Version 423 made me laugh!

In the last round I had several partial requests and a few fulls, so I am hoping to take the next step this time.

I'm interested in understanding what this means. Sounds like the query did its job of getting the ms in the door. I'm thinking the next step is the offer for rep, and the query won't get you there. If it was really several partials and a few fulls from a single round of querying, then you can't ask more from a query letter. Are you sure you want to fix something that was successful?

Agent feedback suggested my query lead them to expect a different book.

IMO, this is an execution issue. The agent(s) didn't respond to the way the idea was executed. The ms got read; the query did its job.

I have been advised to focus more on the other characters (other than San Martin) in my query.

Did an agent advise this? I'm curious as I've never had an agent advise me on my query. That's helpful, but again, the query got the ms read and it sounds like they passed because they weren't expecting multiple viewpoints and they weren't enamored of the execution. Would they have requested if you were more upfront with that? Something to think about...

As for the query, I was actually a multiple viewpoint advocate from the first (but again, if the query was working the other way, why change it?). My very subjective advice is still the same as what I gave on EE's site regarding your original query. That huge block of text in the middle of the query is way too dense and mind-numbing given the number of characters you introduce. I would paragraph each of them out to give each sentence and character equal weight.

I would also intro the action, focusing on San Martin first as he's the MC who brings them all together, and give the reader some context as to why all these people are important, other than seven entertwining lives, which IMO isn't very enticing.

Forming a ragtag army should be its own paragraph, too. Only you've left San Martin in London in the sentence before so it's not clear 1) that he goes to South America, 2) why we should care in the query that he made a stop in London, or 3) what the British Secret Service have to do with anything. And, yes, we know how it ends, but a little mystery in the writing would be nice, even if instead of the definitive frustrating Napoleon's secret plan you say in an attempt to frustrate Nap's secret plan.

All to say that if you take the query this route, please have another look at my original rewrite for a solid idea as to how to construct it (intro of the characters and why important, the characters and what order they appear, how and why they all come together, summation of what they accomplish as a group -- it's a tried-and-true formula). Use your own words, of course, but give the reader a logical progression to help them navigate the large cast.


Sarah Laurenson said...

Coming at this one fresh as I have not read it on EE's site.

I agree with Phoenix in that the previous query did its job - which was to get your foot in the door. Then it becomes the job of the manuscript to move to the next level.

As for this particular version, I couldn't get through a third of it without being totally lost as to what's going on. It's a laundry list of characters and I'm not even sure who is what or where. The punctuation seems a bit off or maybe there are two descriptions for one person with a comma in between. I don't know. Too hard to sift through.

And you don't want a query that makes someone work to read it.

If you're getting the advice that your query is not acurately representing your book, then perhaps the tweaking required is in the description of the book itself and not the story portion.

If it's the multiple POVs that are a surprise, maybe add that to the word count part.

As it stands, I think you're going backwards here.

David Gaughran said...


This is the author (although my mother says I can only call myself a 'writer', authors get paid).

I'll deal with Phoenix's comments first. It was nine partials and four fulls (three of those straight off the query), so the original query was very successful, with the proviso that I queried very widely in both the UK and the US (with a lot more success in the US). The feedback I got, from an agent that I met at a conference and have corresponded with since, tallied with other feedback, which was that the query only focussed on the encounter between San Martin and Bolivar, and didn't mention that the novel has multiple POVs (seven). San Martin doesn't appear until Chapter 5 (about 40 pages in). So when agents were reading the first three chapters (which was the partial that some requested), he wasn't mentioned at all. So yes, the query worked in terms of getting the ms, or part of it, read, but also created false expectations and, crucially, didn't mention the multiple POVs.

There were also problems with the ms, but I have spent the last four months addressing these and I am ready to send out again. So yes, it is more idea-driven than character-driven, and yes, there are a lot more MCs than in your standard story, and yes, most agents are going to reject immediately based on that alone (along with the setting). So this is why my query needs to be both great AND representative of my story (specifically, I feel, at least mentioning the multiple POVs). I have a couple of invitations to re-submit, and one outstanding full request, but I want to start querying again as I submit to them.

Perhaps I should explain my approach to the novel a little more. (continued in next post)

David Gaughran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Gaughran said...

(continuation of last post)

I wanted to do a few things with this book:

(a) I wanted to tell (guess) the story of what happened in that room between San Martin and Bolivar. It's the most momentous moment in South American history, and there is no historical record and there were no witnesses to their conversation. Why did San Martin hand over complete control of his armies to Bolivar? Why did he resign as leader of Peru? Why did San Martin sacrifice everything to become an anonymous farmer in France? Why did neither man speak of the conversation afterward? This was the mystery that originally drew me into the story, and was my starting point. It now forms the climax of the novel.

(b) I wanted to tell the story of the war itself. As I researched the above mystery, I started reading accounts of the war. While there is some, limited general knowledge (outside of South America) of Bolivar and his campaign, very few people know about San Martin and the story of his war. Reading this story (and history books are not my usual casual reading) was like reading the most devilishly-addictive page-turning thriller, with characters that just leaped off the page, full of accounts of derring-do, swashbuckling tales, and victories against the odds. As I read more and more, I decided just to focus on San Martin and his army leading up to the above climax.

(c) I wanted to tell the story of the ordinary people who lived and died during this war. San Martin's army was made up of ex-cons, freed-slaves, runaways, orphans. History books tend to focus on the Great Men, and ignore the ordinary people who do all the trench-digging, the dangerous recon missions, the charging of the enemy positions, the making of the bombs, the feeding of the families left behind. I wanted to tell their story too. So there is an African slave, an Indian miner, runaway brothers, an orphaned girl as well as the two historical figures San Martin and Lord Cochrane. All these characters, I believe are essential to showing the many faces of this war, and I don't think the book could work, as envisaged, without all of them. With a gun to my head, I could get rid of one, max, but that's it, and I wouldn't be happy about it.

As mentioned above, it's the story of seven people who get thrown together by the war, but also how they get thrown together. I wanted to write a big story, with characters starting off in different locations across the world who somehow come together (I think I read too many Tom Clancy books as a kid). I also wanted this process to be gradual (so how they come together is not backstory it's a significant part of the plot). Most of the characters aren't in the same place until halfway through the book, and even then it's hard to keep em together, they keep drifting off, falling out or dying (which accounts for half of em by the end, it is a war after all).

What links these characters? What do they have in common (apart from getting caught up in this war)? Well, I suppose they are all searching for freedom themselves, but, in different ways, and for different reasons, their quest for personal freedom becomes tied to the liberation of South America.

Phoenix, I went back to your original comments on my original EE query ( I remember agreeing with you at the time, but being swayed by the arguments of the other commenters who felt I should pare it back and focus on one element. This may have been a mistake.

Perhaps I need to take a couple of steps back before I try and go forward again. I have my work cut out today, but I will try and come back with something that takes on board Phoenix's original comments. It will be a little longer, but then we can work on paring it back.

As always, any thoughts, ideas or suggestions are welcomed with open arms. And if you think I am talking nonsense, please say so.


David Gaughran said...


Here is my revised attempt. It’s actually just a re-tweaking of Phoenix’s tweaking of my original EE query. I left out the meeting with Bolivar altogether, keeping it for the synopsis. Is this a mistake (for me, at least, it’s quite a juicy non-fiction hook)? I have put a version of the paragraph mentioning it after the query so you can judge for yourself.


Dear [AGENT],

In the early 1800s, José de San Martín and his rag-tag army of Indians, freed slaves and ex-convicts fight to free South America from Spain's domination in my historical novel, A STORM HITS VALPARAISO.

San Martín, Argentine but raised in Spain, deserts from the army and is smuggled out of Cadiz to raise the flag of rebellion against his former leaders. Desperate to free his homeland, he must first free himself from his opium addiction.

Zé, an African slave on the sugar plantations in northern Brazil, kills his master and escapes, stowing away aboard a ship bound for Buenos Aires.

Catalina’s father is murdered by a sailor, leaving her to fend for herself in Santiago. When the Spanish retake the capital, she is forced into the Andes.

Diego and Jorge, two young boys from a hamlet in the Andean foothills, run away from home after a tragic accident, only to get caught up in the independence struggle.

Lord Cochrane, a brilliant Royal Navy officer, is disgraced in the Great Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814 and escapes England to build the rebel forces’ navy.

Their individual quests for freedom converge as revolutionary fervour sweeps across South America.

A STORM HITS VALPARAISO complete at 100,000 words, should appeal to fans of Patrick O'Brian and Louis de Bernières. I look forward to sending you the manuscript.

Yours sincerely,

The paragraph I removed:

By 1822, after twelve years of brutal war, Spain is on the verge of losing her Empire. The two greatest South American generals, Simón Bolívar and San Martín, meet for the first and last time to discuss the conclusion of the conflict. They speak alone, and no historical record is made of their meeting, where San Martín resigns to become an anonymous farmer in France, leaving Bolívar the glory of finishing the Spanish. For two hundred years, San Martín's motives for stepping aside have remained a mystery. Until now.

WouldBe said...

David, I didn't read the original EE query. In the revised version that posted here, the paragraph you cut is what's most interesting, and seems to be what's most interesting to you.

Consider beginning with that and finding a way to show, briefly, how the others' threads weave together to substantively affect the outcome.

The laundry list of names is counter-productive, IMHO...a little mind-numbing. I feel like I have to remember them all. Perhaps refer to them only by their situation, and as a group. How did an African slave, two Andean orphans,... inform San Martin during his crucial meeting with Bolivar?

You'll have to mention the multiple viewpoints.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

You've put the gun down right? I'm thinking you've done a pretty superior job. I like the revised revision of the revision posted as a comment.
I think the para you removed is critical to the story. I am sorry to say when I read "rag-tag" I get the Battlestar Galactica. I read comments and so many say kill the cliches. You can use your gun here.
Good luck,

David Gaughran said...

So, is the consensus that I should not remove that paragraph?