Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ghost Kitty

What better day than Halloween to introduce you to a black cat named Magic?

About two-and-a-half years ago, something mysterious took up residence under my large, wraparound porch. A there-but-not-there presence I couldn't quite see. I did catch a few phantom glimpses, though: a streak of black out of the corner of my eye, a blur of movement in the dark. Occasionally, I heard a soft, eerie mew. Bowls of food I left as offerings were emptied in the night. Once, I saw a possum scavanging the bowl in the wee hours of the morning -- but was it eating the main course or leftovers?

I took to referring to the presence as my ghost kitty. After about a month of playing hide-and-seek with my spectral guest, I began sitting on the porch steps just after dark, talking gently to the unseen spirit, and rattling the food bowl, which when it's filled with a mix of dry and wet food doesn't produce near the kind of rattle you were probably imagining.

Nevertheless, after a couple of weeks of patient coaxing, a small and timid kitten finally slunk out from under the porch. It took another couple of weeks before the kitten didn't dart off the moment I moved and another couple of weeks before he allowed me to touch him.

I didn't press him; I allowed him to come to me when he was comfortable about it. Another couple of weeks and I could pick him up and hold him while he purred for a few seconds before struggling to get down. I tossed around names such as Ghost and Spirit and Shadow for him and finally landed on Magic.

Then it was time to introduce him to the safety of the house. Gray Kitty had no doubt already made his acquaintance under the porch and was his usual accommodating self when Magic moved indoors. He promptly became Magic's surrogate mom, pouncing on the kitten and holding him down while he licked the kitten clean. They were good buddies. And when winter came, they snuggled on the warm bed with me and the dogs.

Magic, though, never lost his shy nature. No one else has ever seen more of him than a glimpse of his freakishly long tail disappearing under the porch or up the stairs. (These pictures, taken this morning, are the first proof to others that he does, indeed, exist.) And while he'll hiss and threaten when another cat bullies him, he tends to be the one to back down even though he's grown into quite a large boy.

Last fall, two other cats joined our household -- cats who took an instant dislike to Magic. During the winter, he hung out in one room as far away from them as possible where Gray Kitty kept him company. When his best bud went missing in the spring, Magic moved outdoors, back under the porch, and has only come in a couple of times -- each at my insistence -- since.

Nowadays, he comes running for breakfast and supper when I call. He'll sit in my lap for long minutes at a time and purr. But he's still afraid of every shadow and every sudden movement. As temperatures dip I'm hoping to be able to entice him back in for the winter. The other two cats will no doubt put up a grand fuss, but they'll just have to get over it. Magic was haunting this house -- and my heart -- long before they ever showed up.

H A P P Y   H A L L O W E E N !

Friday, October 29, 2010

Query 31

Gifted

Dear Ms. XXX,

Dying sucks-- high school senior Ember McWilliams knows firsthand. After a fatal car accident, her gifted little sister, Kayla, brought her back from the dead. Now whatever Ember gets her hands on dies.

Let's face it, being a hormonal teenage girl with a toxic touch is a total killjoy. And when Daemon Cromwell breaks into her house, claiming her curse is a gift, she thinks he’s just a crazed cutie. But when he tells her he can help her control it, she’s more than interested. There’s just one catch: Ember has to trust Daemon’s father, a man she is sure has skeevy reasons for collecting gifted children like action figures. Learning to control her fingers-of-death holds a powerful allure. Ember is willing to do anything to be able to hold her Kayla’s hand again. And heck, she'd also like to be able to kiss Daemon.

But when Ember learns the accident that made her a freak wasn’t an accident, she’s not sure who to trust. Someone wanted her dead, and the closer she gets to the truth, the closer she is to losing not only her heart, but her life. For real this time.

Gifted is a YA yada yada . . .

Sincerely,

Comments

This is quite nice as is -- well written, easy on the "ears" and enticing. I bet you gets lots of requests off of it without changing a thing!

So I'm only going to offer some random observations that you can no doubt safely ignore.

Agents have commented on the number of queries they're seeing lately where the MC dies in the first paragraph, so that part may not be as hook-y as you're hoping for.

The voice here is pretty breezy, but the query doesn't tell us how Ember finds out her touch is toxic. Does she kill a few plants, her pet dog, the EMT who finds her at the car accident? Depending on her emotional state about the things she must have killed to get a clue that she has that gift, the phrase "toxic touch is a total killjoy" might be a bit too breezy and throw-away for the circumstances. This might be a turnoff for some agents in that Ember seems to be taking death too lightly.

Is this inability to touch like Rogue's ability where it has to be skin-to-skin? Does she wear gloves and long sleeves, long pants, etc? Or is it just passed through her hands? Are people who touch her in danger?

Why does Daemon break into her house to tell her she has a gift (trope alert!)? He couldn't knock? Actually, cute supernatural boys breaking into girls' rooms is probably becoming more a convention than a trope these days ;o)

What kind of gifted kids is D's father collecting? He wants Ember but not gifted little Kayla? Are these different gifts or do all the kids he's collecting have Ember's same ability to kill?

"Learning to control her fingers-of-death holds a powerful allure." I think you can delete this sentence as it's a bit redundant with what's just been said.

We will assume the word count is between 60,000 and 90,000 words.

I would capitalize the title of the book.

Good luck -- and let us know how the agent search goes!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

New Query Queue

I've added a list to the sidebar (right under my profile) of calendared queries and synopses. I'll do my best to honor the posting dates. I'll reserve the weekend for personal posts since some people do seem to like the farm-related topics and weekends are less trafficked. Hope the listings help!

Query 30

The Heirs

Dear XYZ

After a lifetime hidden away with her mother in Maui, sixteen-year-old Mia Gabriel finds herself orphaned and oblivious to what she is.

That is the premise of my novel, THE HEIRS, which I would like to interest you in representing.

Taken in by an aunt and uncle, Mia is told about her family's birthright in the dark, violent world of hunting vampires and how her father really died. But if Mia is sure of anything, it's that she cannot be a part of this life. It's not just her father’s premature death that keeps her from wanting this legacy for her own. It’s the charming William Dubois, whom she's fated to hunt.

Now Mia has to make a choice: Join the only family she has left, or stand by the vampire she knows she loves. Mia’s decision may just be the beginning. With no bloodlust for Will and the ability to sense emotion, a gift common among vampires, Mia may become something no one expects. With her great grandmother’s diary in-hand, they find she is directly descended from the last French pureblood vampire. The desperate French coven will do anything to secure a rightful heir. Protecting Will from the brutal Romanian coven that hunts him, and her from the family that will never allow them to be together, may be to the only way to convince THE HEIRS to join their cause.

THE HEIRS is a YA fantasy and complete at 108,000 words.

Yours truly,

Comments

While the writing mechanics here are good, this query left me confused as to the what the real story is. I think it's an issue of the author being too close to the work, so not giving the reader quite the information we need to fully understand what's going on. A few more details will help.

After a lifetime hidden away with her mother in Maui, sixteen-year-old Mia Gabriel finds herself orphaned and oblivious to what she is.

That is the premise of my novel, THE HEIRS, which I would like to interest you in representing.

It seems as though that first sentence is trying to serve as your hook since you call it the premise. But it really isn't the premise or the hook for the story; it is merely a setup. Nor am I convinced it is "the" setup.

I'm making an assumption that Mia's ties to the French vampire are along her maternal line, but that doesn't really explain why she and her mother have been hidden away for 16 years. Did her mother know of the connection and was she trying to protect Mia from the coven or from her husband's family who apparently don't know her heritage? Does Mia realize she's being "hidden away"?

I would delete the whole "That is the premise" sentence since you name the book later on and, since of course you are hoping to get it repped, that's really a rhetorical statement.

Taken in by an aunt and uncle, Mia is told about her family's birthright in the dark, violent world of hunting vampires

If you lead with the first sentence of this query, which is a bit passive ("finds herself"), think about changing this sentence from passive ("is told") to active. Also, are her aunt and uncle in Maui, too? Is the story confined to the islands?

and how her father really died.

Try not to make the reader guess in the query. Agents are reading fast, and they're reading for comprehension. Let us know how Dad died, especially if it was at the hands of a Romanian vamp, which might color Mia's perception of that coven later on. Also, I'm unclear why the focus is on Dad's death. Did Mom die of natural causes? She's a bit of a loose end.

But if Mia is sure of anything, it's that she cannot be a part of this life.

Good!

It's not just her father’s premature death that keeps her from wanting this legacy for her own.

I think this sentence can be deleted. It's filler.

It’s the charming William Dubois, whom she's fated to hunt.

Now, because this is kind of a trope, the reader understands what this means once they read the next sentence. However, you haven't really given us any context around Will. Did she fall in love with him before she knew of her hunter legacy? Has she known all along he's a vampire? And how does Will feel about her?

Now Mia has to make a choice: Join the only family she has left, or stand by the vampire she knows she loves.

This is also good!

Mia’s decision may just be the beginning.

This is where things become confusing for me. What is the beginning: that Mia has a decision to make or the decision she actually makes? Also try to avoid weasel words such as "may be" and opt for declarative statements.

With no bloodlust for Will and the ability to sense emotion, a gift common among vampires, Mia may become something no one expects.

If Mia was born as something, she "is", she won't "become". But that's the trouble with hinting at things. You may well mean that she will become some sort of vamp/hunter liaison in the future. But I can't tell which way you're heading with this right now.

With her great grandmother’s diary in-hand, they find she is directly descended from the last French pureblood vampire.

Who are "they"? Mia and Will? But if it's them, how does the French coven discover Mia's lineage?

It would also help clear things up if the query told us how far back all this happened. Is the vampire her great grandfather? Is the vampire dead now? Can he not make more little vampires? The reader doesn't know the rules of your world, so you have to help fill in the gaps.

The desperate French coven will do anything to secure a rightful heir.

Since Will is obviously French, how does he tie into any pureblood ancestors? I'm assuming since the title is plural, that there is another heir in the picture. Would that be Will? How long has the coven been missing an heir? Seems anyone along Mia's maternal ancestry could have been "secured".

Protecting Will from the brutal Romanian coven that hunts him, and her from the family that will never allow them to be together,

Why are the Romanians hunting Will? This seems to come out of nowhere. And if Mia is being protected from her family, does that mean they've discovered she's part vamp and are hunting her now?

may be to the only way to convince THE HEIRS to join their cause.

This last bit leaves me the most confused. Is the French coven the real protagonist here? If Will and Mia are both being protected, they are not being proactive. What are Mia and Will doing to secure their places in the story as protagonists? And is the reader supposed to be rooting for the French coven's cause? If so, I don't have a clear idea of who they are, what they're doing, and why I should be rooting for them to succeed in getting Will and Mia to join them.

THE HEIRS is a YA fantasy and complete at 108,000 words.

I would classify this as a YA paranormal romance rather than fantasy.

So yes,  lot's of questions. But it doesn't mean every one of them need be answered. And some of them are easily addressed by a simple rewrite of a sentence or through different word choices. And if you delete the suggested sentences, you have about 60 more words you can comfortably add to the query without it exceeding the standard length.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Synopsis 8: Three Broads and a Fraud

You’ll love DOTTY CROWDY, despite the fact her two lifelong friends NORA and WILMA, find her incorrigible, especially when her two hundred and twenty watt light bulb illuminates her mind with ludicrous ideas and doesn’t have an off switch. Her latest illumination is an African camping adventure, which fails to resonate with her friends, but Dotty knows how to sway their mind over a couple of bottles of sherry.

Dotty’s unsuccessful visit to a travel agent prompts her to a visit to the Forest Arms for a conciliatory drink. She meets LUCAS, who hails from an exotic Brazzina (an imaginary but plausible island) off the coast of Africa. He’s a tour operator and well connected, so he tells her. In her excitement, she invites him to dinner to meet her two sceptical friends. Nora’s cautiousness and lack of ambition and Wilma dubiousness peeves her until Lucas seduces their minds with pristine beaches and beautiful mountains.

The three women excitedly chat about their forthcoming holiday over coffee in the local cafe. MAJOR RAYMOND MILESTONE eavesdrops on their conversation. He catches Dotty’s eye, her beguiling smiles offers him an invitation to join them and introduces himself. When he invites her to dinner, her hormones do the tango as she misconstrues this as a romantic tryst. His purpose is to glean surreptitiously, information on their itinerary. He’s not surprised it coincides with his covert military operation to destroy Lucas’s opium on the island. He realises the women will be in danger if left to Lucas’s devises. The onus is on Milestone to provide clandestine protection for the trio. Dotty doesn’t hear from him again and assumes he’s a jerk.

From the outset of their travels, nothing is as Lucas promises. Their travel arrangements are a diabolical cock-up. On arrival on the island, hysteria abounds when they see the touring vehicle, an old war torn rust bucket with a goat tethered to the tow bar and a box of live chickens as their fresh supplies. HONEST, their driver guide meets them, not Lucas’s brother as he arranges. The hazardous journey takes five hours due to a cloudburst, potholes and thick mud. On arrival at their destination and to their surprise, they find a luxury camp nestling at the foot of the mountain. They absolve Lucas for the minor hic-ups!

A day into their sunshine holiday a storm rips through their camp. They seek refuge under a solid kitchen table as its canvas engulfs them into darkness. The end is nigh as Dotty suggests they make their confessions. Three hours later the storm abates, miraculously they only suffer minor injuries.

Dotty is suspicious when a new camp is erected and interrogates Honest. She knows Lucas doesn’t have the resources. She demands to know who his boss is. Reluctant, he reveals it is Milestone. Furious, she concludes he’s a kidnapper and contrives a foolproof escape plan to safety. They steal their vehicle and find themselves bogged down in mud. Nora and Wilma must push them out, if their mission is to be a success. Instead, Dotty steers it down a ravine, leaping to safety just in time. Despondent they contemplate their long walk back to camp. A passing vehicle picks up three dishevelled mud coated ladies and their goat.

Honest lets slip, his boss watches their every move from a secluded observation post. He reports to him early every morning. This adds fuel to her rage and begins a vendetta of ridiculous demands, chilled champagne for breakfast, and lobster for lunch, fans and a generator. Milestone wonders if the wretched women think they’re staying in the Hilton hotel.

Two days later, Dotty demands to see Milestone. She learns he and his personnel have gone to war. Hysteria prevails; they’re in a plum war zone and Milestone has kidnapped them for ransom. Honest assures them it’s not true and moves them to Plantation House, Milestone’s HQ.

ROSE the housekeeper welcomes them; they’re awestruck by its luxury and the aquamarine sea below. Nevertheless, Dotty still plans another escape. She cajoles the driver to take them into the city: they must find their original guide. A visit to the market and opium parlour lands them in jail. Milestone radios Rose to find if the wretched women have settled, she tells them of their arrest. Enraged, he bellows for DURWARD, the Intelligence Officer, to find out the reason. Mortified, Durward has to inform his superior the charge is smoking opium with intent of purchasing. One of the women is his grandmother, Nora. Dotty thought she was buying opium perfume. Milestone negotiates their release with strict instructions to Rose and Honest to lock away anything with wheels, and the keys to the vehicle. Even better, shackle them to a tree until his return.

Milestone accomplishes his mission despite the added challenges and returns to the house with his key personnel only to discover the women missing. They trio and their goat went on a picnic in the forest and haven’t returned. At the end of his thither, he sends a search party. The inebriated trio are singing in the observation post. Dotty jumps in surprise when she sees Milestone. Nora’s surprise is seeing her grandson.

The following day Milestone explains his modus operandi. To accomplish his mission, he had to provide for their safety. Lucas, a drug baron, whose opium they confiscate and destroy had plans to use them as pawns against the military, even if it meant their demise. Embarrassed, the three tell Milestone what they thought – he abducted them for ransom and sleazy pornographic movies. Milestone is under no illusion where the assumption comes from.

With two days left of their holiday, Dotty has to find a way for Milestone’s forgiveness. He taunts her with his aloofness, although his full intention is to prove to her, he is not the person she makes him out to be.

Comments

The synopsis is a bit frenetic and choppy. Each sentence doesn't lead as smoothly as it could into the next sentence; instead, it's like a roller coaster where the reader is being whipped first one way then another. And like a coaster ride, we come to an abrupt halt at the end. It's kind of like you thought: Uh-oh, I'm approaching maximum word count; I'll do what they do in journalism and start cutting from the end of the story.

Like with your query, I think you were just in a hurry to get this out -- and it shows. It needs a very careful edit. No matter the fun premise, I don't believe any agent or editor would ask for more based on this simply because of the amount of editing they would infer your manuscript needs.

Capping the character names on first introduction is a preference thing. Some people hate it, some people like it. I've done it both ways with abandon. So it's up to you whether to do it or not.

My version takes it down from 978 words to 760 words. It cleans up the grammar and syntax issues, but it's up to you -- and maybe some of the commenters! -- to add in the needed voice.

My Revision

At 63, Dotty Crowdy is an incorrigible retiree with a wild imagination, even wilder schemes, and plenty of time to act on them. Her latest notion: an African camping adventure with her two lifelong friends, Nora and Wilma. As usual, Norma urges caution and Wilma is dubious about the whole business, but it just takes a couple of bottles of sherry before they're willing to follow Dotty anywhere. Nor does it hurt that Lucas, the charming tour operator from an exotic island off the coast of Africa, is so persuasive and insistent, filling their heads with promises of pristine beaches and beautiful mountains.

The three women are in a local cafe chatting excitedly about their upcoming holiday when a silver fox, Major Raymond Milestone, catches Dotty's eye. She beckons him over with a beguiling smile, and when he invites her to dinner, her hormones do the tango.

Milestone, however, isn't after a romantic tryst; he's after her holiday itinerary. Nor is he surprised to find it coincides with his covert military operation to stop an opium cartel run by the same Lucas who's posing as Dotty's tour operator. Realizing the women are heading into danger but not knowing what it is, Milestone sets up clandestine protection for the trio.

When Dotty doesn't hear from him again, she assumes Milestone is a jerk. But she has other issues to worry about once she's off on her holiday. For starters, the touring vehicle is an old, war-torn rust bucket. And their fresh supplies? A goat tethered to the tow bar along with a crate of live chickens. It isn't even the driver -- Lucas' brother -- that had been arranged. And though it's a small island, it takes 5 hours to negotiate the potholes, rain and mud on the way to their lodgings.

A day into their "sunshine holiday" a ferocious storm rips through camp. Sheltering under a kitchen table, Dotty is convinced the end is nigh and suggests they make their confessions. A short time later the storm ends, but Dotty is suspicious about how quickly a new camp is erected. She drills their driver, Honest, to find out who's funding it only to discover it isn't Lucas at all but Milestone. Of course, there's only one possible explanation: Milestone must have kidnapped them and now intends to force them into making one of those sleazy pornographic films.

Dotty plots a foolproof escape and the trio manages to steal their tour bus. Only getting bogged down in mud isn't part of the plan. Nor is having to work the clutch. When the bus careens out of control into a ravine, the women leap to safety just in time. Almost immediately Honest is there to pick up the three disshevelled, mud-coated ladies and their goat.

When Dotty learns Honest's boss is watching their every move from a secluded observation post, she's infuriated. She begins a vendetta of ridiculous demands -- chilled champagne for breakfast, lobster for lunch, fans, and a generator -- wanting to put Hilton Hotel screws to Milestone's camping budget. The one demand that isn't granted is her demand to see Milestone. Her imagination concocts the obvious reason: They're in the middle of a war zone, Milestone is heading up an army, and she and her friends have been kidnapped for ransom.

Another escape attempt is in order. Dotty cajoles Honest into taking them into the city where she intends to find their original guide and go home. A sidetrip to the market, though, thwarts her plan when they duck into an opium parlor, which Dotty mistakes for a factory that manufactures her favorite brand of perfume. The women are unceremoniously thrown in jail on charges of smoking opium with intent to purchase.

An exasperated Milestone negotiates their release with strict instructions to Honest to keep a sharp eye on them and lock away anything with wheels. Even better, shackle them to a tree until his return.

He and his men track after Lucas, the opium baron, confiscate and destroy his latest shipment, and put him in custody. When Milestone returns, Dotty and her friends are gone -- again. A frantic search finds them in the forest. On a picnic. With their goat. The inebriated trio is singing, and Milestone finds himself thawing in the presence of their simple exuberance for life.

Against his better judgment, he invites Dotty to dinner. With a wink in her eye, she accepts, knowing she still has two days left of her holiday to win him over and end this silver fox's kidnapping ways.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Query 29

Three Broads and a Fraud

THREE BROADS AND A FRAUD is an 85,000-word comedy about three audacious sexagenarians whose wild imaginations create havoc when they venture on vacation to a remote African island.

Dotty’s meets a stranger who seduces her mind with pristine beaches and majestic mountains to holiday there. She persuades her two friends, who’ve never left the shores of England, to accompany her. While discussing their holiday, they encounter retired Major Milestone, who sends Dotty’s hormones tangoing: his interest is to glean surreptitiously their itinerary. He knows the stranger and guesses his ulterior motive. The onus is on him to provide his clandestine protection.

From the outset of their travels, nothing is a promised. Dotty is nervous and expresses her concern. She guarantees her friends a foolproof escape plan. They trust her judiciousness until she steers their only means of transport down a chasm before they leap to safety. Their next attempt finds them in an opium parlour, which lands them in a notorious jail: Dotty mistook it for a perfume factory. Meanwhile, Milestone’s frustrations explode as the women are about to blow his covert military operation and risk the lives of his personnel. He surprises them and explains his modus operandi for his protection. To their horror, they learn the stranger Dotty trusted, is head of the island’s opium cartel and his intention was to use them as hostages against the military’s destruction of is crop. Embarrassed, she must devise a secret plan to capture Milestone’s heart after her reckless stupidity. With her record of harebrained ideas, her friends are doubtful.

Comments

OK. Deep breath, author. I think that you're panicking a bit trying to cram your story into a short query and that's leading to some awkward phrasing and odd word choices. You need to relax a bit and let the story tell itself -- don't try to force it.

What does that mean in concrete terms? Take the phrase "his interest is to glean surreptitiously their itinerary." That could be simply stated as "all he wants is to find out their itinerary."

I love the age group for your "broads" and the story seems, plotwise, like it could be a really fun romp. I also love your title. My concern is that if the writing in the story mirrors what's in your query (and the synopsis, which I'll post tomorrow), even if we get your proposal pieces in good shape the first pages won't pass muster with an agent. Please be sure you take a long, hard, objective look at your manuscript and be sure it's edited to a tee before you submit it.

My Revision

I padded this version with a few details from the synopsis to help demonstrate some of the humor. My rewrite helps clear up the grammar issues, but it feels long and synops-y to me, even though it still fits on a page and runs about 311 words. Other suggestions?

Three audacious sexagenarians with wild imaginations create havoc on a remote African island when they mistakenly get caught in an opium war in my 85,000-word comedy, THREE BROADS AND A FRAUD.

A chance encounter with a silver-tongued tour operator has incorrigible Dotty Crowdy dreaming of majestic mountains and pristine beaches. Now all she has to do is convince her two best friends to leave staid Britannia behind and join her on an island adventure off the coast of Africa.

The promised holiday turns south quickly: their luxury touring vehicle is a war-torn rust bucket, their fresh supplies consist of a goat and a crate of live chickens, and it's monsoon season. When a mix-up convinces Dotty and her blue-haired friends they've been kidnapped and will be forced into making sleazy pornographic movies, Dotty devises a foolproof escape plan. The only one escaping, though, is their tour bus, which takes an unmanned swan dive off a cliff.

Their luck holds true when later they find themselves escorted to jail after Dotty mistakes an opium parlour for a perfume factory. Major Milestone, a British patriot who has Dotty's hormones doing the tango, bails the ladies out, but after a few bottles of celebratory champagne, the flighty women are once again seeing conspiracies and questioning the major's motives.

That is, until Dotty learns Milestone is heading up a covert military operation to close down an opium cartel led by the mysterious stranger that encouraged her to visit the island in the first place. Seems the plan was to use her and her friends as hostages should the military move to destroy the crop now in full bloom. A smitten Dotty devises one last harebrained scheme to help Milestone capture the drug baron while she concentrates on capturing the major's heart.

Thank you for your time. I look forward to sending you the completed manuscript.

Sincerely,

Sunday, October 24, 2010

How Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

The U.S. Post Office mails live chicks.

Five years ago I didn't know that. Back then I started dreaming about a little flock of busy hens I could toss a bit of scratch to and that would add country flavor to my life. So I built a chicken coop and did my online research. Turns out there are hatcheries that sell dozens of varieties of chickens. And they offer discounts if you buy by the lot. I succumbed, mainly because I couldn't choose. Such varieties! And sooo cute. When I finished placing my order, there were 55 chicks on it.

It was August and the end of the shipping season, and while it's common practice for hatcheries to add an extra chick or two to each order to offset any losses during shipping and to add warmth during cold months, this hatchery was obviously wanting to deplete stock -- they sent 12 extras. All boys.

The mural on the back of the chicken coop - the picket fence is painted on the taller guinea coop
The post office called early in the day to let me know they'd arrived. I'm certain the workers were happy I rushed over to pick them up since 67 3-day-old chicks all cheeping at once make a remarkable bit of noise. They came in two easy-to-handle, specially designed cardboard crates that I could easily carry together.

All the chicks survived. Being a complete novice, I wasn't sure how much room the chicks would actually take up. Nor had I counted on the additional 12 boys. I had set up a 55-gallon aquarium for them, but realized that would be a tight fit. Luckily I had figured out I was never meant to raise tropical fish indoors so I also had an empty 29-gallon aquarium on hand. I set the temporary homes up in the sunroom and sorted the chicks by size: standards and bantams. Like regular Miniature Horses are simply small versions of standard-size horses, regular bantams look like half-sized versions of standard-sized chickens. Note that they also lay half-sized eggs.

Traansition from the aquarium at 3 days old to outside at 1 week old to temporary fencing at 2 weeks old
 Chicks grow fast. When they were 1 week old I moved them to a makeshift pen of hay bales, fencing and a waterproof tarp I erected just outside my back door. A floodlight on a nearby shed helped ensure protection at night and I weighted down the fencing over the top of the pen to keep predators out. It worked well, and no babies were lost in the transition. A week later, I added a second fenced area where they stayed until they were big enough to move to their new coop and big chicken yard with it's large pear tree to nap under. As they continued to grow, I realized they needed a little more wing room, so I cut a connecting hole between the chicken coop and the guinea coop. By that time I wasn't worried the guineas would hurt them and they all snuggled in together at night quite peaceably.

Silkies
I discovered that the more exotic varieties of chickens aren't very hardy. The Silkies with their topknot pompadours were frail little birds with brittle bones and malformed feet. I lost a number of them in early adulthood to natural, inbred causes. The standard roosters were all very beautiful birds, and while they weren't terribly aggressive, they were quite, um, virile. And 20 roosters running after 47 hens didn't bode well for the hens. The roosters were rough with the girls, pulling out feathers and leaving large bare patches that would sunburn. The hens took to cowering together, and I realized that while many customers would have thanked the hatchery for sending them extra roosters they could use for 3 months of Sunday dinners, I had a problem since I don't raise animals to slaughter. So, reluctantly, I found a humane, no-kill home for 12 of them with the director of our local animal shelter. I kept all the bantam boys and a few of the standards, including the undeniable flock leader, who my dad named Big Red.


One myth about roosters I can dispel is the belief they only crow in the early morning hours. Not so, as many of my coworkers can attest after hearing the boys hollering while I'm on conference calls throughout the day. When you have roosters (and guineas), the mute button is your friend. Also, mine often start crowing around 4:30 a.m., long before dawn.

And a bit of trivia you can use to dazzle at your next party: Did you know you can look at a chicken and predict what color of egg she will lay? If she has red ears, she will lay brown eggs, if she has white ears, her eggs will be white. The shell is simply pigmented or not, just like their ears.

My Disney-fied motif on the front and end of the coop.
The little door in the lower right is chicken-sized to allow access
when the large doors are closed during inclement weather.

During the first 3 years, I made a few hundred dollars selling eggs, although I still wasn't quite breaking even with feed costs. The girls are now finally beyond their best egg-laying years and while they still lay more than enough eggs for me and my dogs, the weekly quantity continues to diminish. Since their laying cycle is based on the number of hours of light in the day, as well as temperature, they naturally hit a seasonal low around Christmas. There's a reason eggs feature heavily in the Easter tradition -- by the spring equinox, hens tend to be in full laying mode and families who keep enough layers to ensure a good supply of eggs year round, have reliably more eggs then than they need.

Coyotes have gotten more than their fair share of chicken dinners. And the original chicks, now in their sunset years, are passing on. I have had two hens -- one a bantam and the other a standard -- who found their way into the flock from who knows where. I don't know any neighbors who raise chickens, but the girls showed up separately, about a year apart, and stayed. Right now the count stands at 24: 10 roosters and 14 hens. Four of the roosters live in the guinea coop where I've built them a separate small pen. Two more roosters live in the backyard with the ducks since one of them was being bullied by his brothers and the other had the chicken equivalent of a stroke and was having trouble getting around.

The soul-soothing view from my desk and front porch
The rest of flock free-ranges, eating tasty weeds and chasing bugs, napping in the shade and taking baths in the sand. They have their individual personalities, quirks, and habits. Chickens are such a quintessential farm sight and having them around brings a bit of comfort to my life. Whenever I see them, I can feel a bit of stress unclench itself from my chest and just ... leave. It isn't chicken soup that's good for my soul. It's the wonder and beauty of the chickens themselves. And while I'll never have 67 at one time again, I'm sure there'll always be a dozen or so running around underfoot to make life just a little happier.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Query Revision 28

Face-Lift 833: Trapped in the Masquerade

From the author: Thank you for all the criticism ... I took your nice and not so nice suggestions to heart. I think its better, so go ahead and rip it a part. I can take it!

It is Abigail Clary’s seventeenth birthday and better yet, it’s Halloween, the universal holiday to break the rules and get away with it. Her mother, who never seems to leave her alone or allow her to go to public school like a typical girl her age, suddenly has to leave under mysterious circumstances. Free from her mother’s ever watchful eye, Abigail makes plans with two of her BFFs to sneak into Emerson Academy’s ultra-exclusive masquerade ball. Unfortunately for Abigail, the masquerade ball is merely a trap set to ensnare dinner for the vampires that visit Emerson every Halloween and to choose three tributes for Callum who is the original vampire who secretly runs the magical world but yearns for something more—Abigail’s suppressed magical abilities. Abigail escapes the clutches of Callum and his minions thanks to Thomas Guerin, an ally of her estranged grandmother.

If the issue with vampires chasing after her, Abigail has a bigger problem: she starts to become increasingly sick with headaches and nose bleeds whenever she tries to use her magical abilities—the very thing that will save her from Callum and the vampires. As Abigail tries to navigate through her new and deadly reality, she has to come to terms with her feelings concerning her mother’s actions as well as her feelings for Thomas and find a solution that could save her life before it’s too late.

TRAPPED IN THE MASQUERADE is a young adult paranormal novel, which complete at 89,754 words.

Comments

This query has definitely improved over the original. However, the story now sounds pretty generic. I'm wondering why you chose to leave out some major things that could help differentiate this story. For instance, the time travel aspect and that Abigail is blind.

Also, I think you've fallen into the trap we all do at one time or another: being too close to the work right now to summarize it for someone coming at it cold. For example:

  • she has to come to terms with her feelings concerning her mother’s actions - in this version of the query all we know is that Mom left mysteriously (a loose end here), so this statement doesn't make sense.
  • her feelings for Thomas - all we know in this version is that Thomas is an ally of her grandmother. Without further info, a casual reader might very well believe Thomas is her grandmother's age and so we are left to wonder when we get to this statement just what kind of feelings Abigail has for him.
I'm pretty sure you hurried a bit to get a new version of the query out for comments, but in the queries and the synopsis we've seen, there are a number of grammar issues that a couple of careful editing passes should help clear up.

And a secret: Giving the exact word count is a query marks you as a newbie. Go ahead and round that word count up to 90,000.

Try the following formula.

Quickly set up the action:
With her overprotective mom away on business during Halloween, Abigail Clary and her two BFFs gate-crash Emerson Academy's ultra-exclusive masquerade ball. The ball is a ruse, though, held to ensnare dinner for a colony of vampires and to choose tributes for Callum, the original sire. When Callum sniffs out Abigail's suppressed magic -- abilities Abigail doesn't even know she has -- she stops being the night's blue plate special and becomes Callum's captive slave.

Next paragraph (flesh this out in your words):
Abigail is rescued by young and handsome Thomas. She learns she's descended from a family of witches, reincarnated through the ages (or whatever the link to 1273 is). To protect her from being hunted when she was born, Mom cast a spell that also left her blind. Now that Callum knows she exists, a family friend tries to keep her safe by zapping her back to 1273 where she met Thomas for the first time and fell in love with him.

Third paragraph (flesh out):
Mom's spell has been corrupted and Callum's henchmen find her in 1273 and zap her back to the present where she finds herself dying. Callum is coming and she has to figure out how to tap into her abilities in time to fend off Callum's plans, to connect with Thomas, and to reverse the spell that's killing her.

The concern I have is that after reading your synopsis over at EE's, is that Abigail doesn't really seem to be the one solving her problem. She appears to be a passive bystander at the end, which doesn't make for a kickass YA paranormal witch that YAs will love.

Others' thoughts?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Query 27

Duality

Dear Agent:

Subject Thirty-one wants her life back; if only she could remember it.

The Humani Project’s latest success believes she's human, but her sleek black fur, claws, and tail make that seem...unlikely. Her only clue to an existence before she had panther DNA spliced to hers is a name—“Janelle”—uttered by a scientist with tear rolling down her cheek.

Imprisoned in a sinister Phoenix, Arizona lab where failure equals termination, Janelle's must balance her warring human and animal halves to survive. But she doesn’t know the first thing about taming a wild animal—especially when it’s a part of her.

After Lorenzo Fernandez, the lead scientist, breaks protocol to save her life and calls her by name, the woman she was rises up in a determined hunt for the truth. Why does the one person she should hate above all others love her? Why does she feel the same? As time runs out, her only hope is to harness the animal within to protect herself and the man she loves.

Good thing cats have nine lives—she’ll need every one of them to uncover the truth.

DUALITY is a science fiction novel complete at 114,000 words. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
Me.

Comments
 
Overall, I'm not sure what the true conflict is. The choice of panther is likely not an overdone were-type creature, but what I see here doesn't really seem to be the full story. Or if it is the story, maybe it's not hooky enough. Did you see Wolverine? His time imprisoned as a scientific experiment was only about half the movie. There was plot beyond that -- mainly to answer the question why the experiment to begin with.
 
It feels like there's a big evil here beyond Janelle's struggle to come to terms with her beast that isn't showing up in the query, not even as a real hint or tease. I made up a behind-the-scenes evil in my revision below as an example of giving the reader a taste for how Janelle's internal struggle is reflected in the bigger picture.
 
Subject Thirty-one wants her life back; if only she could remember it.
 
Is it really a spelled-out "thirty-one" in the ms? Aren't most scientific subjects labeled using numerals: 31? (Or are you just going by the Chicago Manual of Style here?) If she can't remember her life, how does she know she wants it back?
 
The Humani Project’s latest success believes she's human, but her sleek black fur, claws, and tail make that seem...unlikely.
 
Having "success" here makes the "failure" reference in the next 'graph seem a bit odd.
 
Her only clue to an existence before she had panther DNA spliced to hers is a name—“Janelle”—uttered by a scientist with tear rolling down her cheek.
 
The tear is nice detail, but it doesn't give us quite the needed information, which is why the scientist weeps. Also, since this scientist is referred to as "her", when Lorenzo breaks protocol by calling her by name, it makes it seem like he must have been the one referred to here and that the female pronoun is a mistake.
 
Imprisoned in a sinister Phoenix, Arizona lab where failure equals termination, Janelle's must balance her warring human and animal halves to survive.
 
I'm not getting a sense that there's much of a war going on. What's the struggle? What kind of balance is needed?
 
But she doesn’t know the first thing about taming a wild animal—especially when it’s a part of her.
 
This is good.
 
After Lorenzo Fernandez, the lead scientist, breaks protocol to save her life and calls her by name, the woman she was rises up in a determined hunt for the truth.
 
Why doesn't she hunt the truth when the female scientist above calls her by name? Of course, we don't why her life was in danger or why calling her name was enough to save it, so a little something around that would be good.
 
Why does the one person she should hate above all others love her?
 
So, since you mentioned the first scientist calling her name, I keep looking back to that to see why name-calling is a sign of love. My suggestion is to delete the reference to the woman scientist as it confuses the later conflict.
 
Why does she feel the same? As time runs out, her only hope is to harness the animal within to protect herself and the man she loves.
 
I sort of get the protecting herself part, but what's with the man she loves? Is his fate somehow wrapped up in hers? I don't understand why he's in danger.
 
Good thing cats have nine lives—she’ll need every one of them to uncover the truth.
 
Clever, but it makes me wonder how her life is endangered. I thought she was just trying to come to terms with the beast within.

DUALITY is a science fiction novel complete at 114,000 words. Thank you for your time and consideration.

My Revision

If Subject 31 could only remember her old life, she's pretty damn sure she'd want it back.

The Humani Project’s latest experiment believes she's human, but her sleek black fur, claws, and tail make that seem...unlikely. Her only clue to an existence before she had panther DNA spliced to hers is a fragment of a memory and a name--Janelle.

Whoever it is keeping her imprisoned in the lab in Phoenix, Arizona, wants to turn her into the ultimate peacekeeper. She resists the training, but the demands, the headaches, the urge to kill, it's all wearing her down. She's having trouble enough trying to tame the wild animal that wants to take over without having to figure out what she should--or shouldn't--be doing with her talents.

When a training accident puts her life in danger and the lead geneticist on her project breaks protocol to save her, the woman she was rises up in a determined hunt for the truth. But Janelle has another problem: her feelings for Lorenzo, the geneticist who made her into the thing she is, are clouding her good sense.

Now whoever is controlling the strings is ready to unleash her skills. Her first target: the traitor Lorenzo. If Janelle is to save her humanity and protect the man she loves, her only hope is to embrace the animal within and become what she was created to be.

DUALITY is a science fiction novel complete at 114,000 words. I look forward to sending you the manuscript.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My First Mashup Post

My Li'l Pony Meets the Living Dead

Thanks for dropping by. Still no queries to shred, so, umm ... *looking around for something to say*...


The new filly has a name: Bonita! Since her mom is Bella, that makes a nice match, don't you think? The name was chosen through a contest among my coworkers. Unsurprisingly, the winning entry came from a native Guatemalan. Who also happened to have a heavy hand in the cover design for the Extinct anthology. Thanks, Edgar -- on multiple counts!



Oh, and I had a short story accepted for a print anthology. Here's a sneak peek at the cover. Pretty awesome, huh? Zombies. The Civil War. I KNEW that MA in English and those hundreds of hours applying the many schools of literary criticism and theory to some of the most masterful works of our language wouldn't go to waste. Details closer to release, which should be before the end of the year.

Umm, slow news day. I got nothin' else.

So, in conclusion, send queries (phoenixsullivan @ yahoo.com) and send stories for Extinct. And pet a baby horse if you have one handy.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cozy on Up

Kay Elam, whose query and synopsis for Murder on Music Row recently appeared here, has a guest post up at Nathan Bransford's blog about cozy mysteries. Don't know what they are? She'll fill you right in!

Meanwhile, still waiting for more queries here. *drumming on table*

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Meet the Newest Arrival to Rainbow's End Farm

This little filly was born Friday morning. Right now she's a mousy gray with gray-blue eyes on her way to being who knows what color once she sheds her baby fur. It was a clockwork birth and the as-yet-unnamed little girl and her mama are doing great. Bella, the mare, is half Miniature and half Shetland Pony, and is pony-sized. The baby is sooo tiny compared to her. But she's tough and sturdy and already trotting around like a pro. I kept close watch on them all day yesterday and I never saw the baby lie down; in fact, I caught her drowsing on her feet a couple of times. Talk about growing up fast!

Unfortunately, this was an unplanned pregnancy and what happens when you wait too long to geld young studs. Gelding will be soon on the agenda while the weather is still nice.

This is the filly at a little over an hour old.

First breakfast!

Talking with Mom and looking a lot like a stuffed toy.

Sharing the sun and doing her baby donkey impression.
What she lacks in elegance she makes up for in adorability.

Wondering about her place in the world.

A close up of her blue eyes. They'll likely change to brown, but her brown-eyed mother
came from a breeder who specifically bred for blue.

Ricky, the likely daddy, very curious and concerned about what's going on with his girlfriend in the pasture across the driveway. He's been whinnying. A lot.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Fast Pitch

As we wait patiently for more queries to come in (revisions on Evil Editor's blog get rerouted to here, or you may send your query directly to phoenixsullivan @ yahoo.com), I thought we could try our hands at writing one-sentence pitches.

Several agents have blogged about the importance of having multiple vehicles readily available to talk about your book -- everything from a logline to a paragraph to a full-blown query and synopsis. Of particular importance, if only for dazzling guests at cocktails parties, is the one-sentence logline or hook. I won't recount what others have said perfectly well and then some, so go read agent Rachelle Gardner's advice and critiques, which are fairly comprehensive, then come back here to put what you've learned into practice.

How to write the hook sentence
Examples of good ones and why they're good
Examples of less-good ones and how they can be improved

If you haven't experienced the true delight of condensing your 100,000-word story down to fewer than 30 words, then you probably still have a full head of hair and hope for the future. Agonizing over a query is nothing compared to trying to boil down the essence of your book to little more than the length of a tweet.

So post your results in the comments and feel free to comment on everyone else's.

Sorry, no contest or prizes like Rachelle offered. But my log line got an honorable mention, so I'll start us off by reposting it here:

When a cloning project reintroduces the pandemic that wiped out the Ice Age megabeasts, a veterinarian and a CDC investigator battle to keep humans from becoming the next target for extinction.
Looking forward to seeing YOURS!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Range Wars

The critiquing queue is empty -- send more!

Since you dropped by (thank you, I love virtual visitors!), I feel the need to entertain you (no, wait, you don't have to go, do you?), so I thought I'd tell you a farm-related story. (Speaking of stories, don't forget to submit one to the Extinct anthology -- over a dozen submissions so far, and it's still early in the cycle!).

I live in Texas, land of wide open ranges and cattle and cowboys. Except no, it's not; that's what Texas used to be. There is a 400-acre ranch across the road from me where they can't seem to decide what they want to raise. It was horses at first, then Hereford cows, and now it's a field full of angus when they aren't growing hay. Most neighbors up and down the road have small farms of 5-30 acres and only a handful of them keep a few cows, mainly for beef.

Of the 8 neighbors whose land is directly adjacent to mine, 3 of them have 3 or 4 cows each. I let one neighbor, Bobby, graze his cows on a back pasture of mine for a couple of years in return for mowing the area and keeping that fence  repaired. It's an old fence -- one I will need to replace before I would feel comfortable putting any of MY animals back there. The other neighbors' cows kept breaking through it, though, so Bobby stopped putting his cows in that pasture. My dog, Loki, misses them. Bobby had a couple of longhorns with calves and Loki would play tag with the little ones, chasing them for awhile, then letting them chase him.

The other neighbor cows still break through, and each neighbor blames the others' cows for breaking down the fences and tramping across my land and into each others' pastures. The neighbor who has a bull claims the other neighbor purposefully opens the fence so he can get his heifers bred for free. That neighbor claims the bull tears the fences down in order to get to his cows.

Cody, one of the miniature horses making bovine friends
The upshot is the two herds tend to hang out together, and often on my property. The cows are BIG and heavy and can be destructive. And, depending on what gates I leave open or closed, the cows can get out to the road through my property. I worry about them getting hit by a car and about what might happen to the folk in the car doing the hitting.

In some states, if you don't want a neighbor's animals on your property, it's up to you to put up whatever fencing is required to keep them out. That seems rather unfair to me. In Texas, it's up to the animals' owner to keep them secured. In my county, if there are loose cattle, the sheriff's department will round them up and/or find the owners and have them do it. It's preferable for the owners to do it themselves; otherwise, the deputies will impound the animals and charge a hefty fee for the owner to retrieve them. A couple of years ago I had 4 angus steers that kept showing up and hanging out in a then-unfenced area. I finally called a deputy to come out, who was able to locate the owner about a mile away. The owner herded them back home where they stayed for a couple of days before they showed up back here again. It took a second notice from the sheriff's department before the owner decided it was in his best interest to keep his cows home.

I'm not going to force the issue with my 2 neighbors -- for now. I could be melodramatic and say it's because it's Texas, and out here everyone owns a rifle, but while everyone out here DOES own a rifle and many people shoot them off regularly, we're actually a pretty civilized bunch (although where I lived 20 years ago -- about 100 miles from here -- I really would have been worried about someone shooting me for raising a ruckus). I know the cows well enough now that when I see the cows on my land, I call up one or the other of the neighbors. They come out and check the fence then do a cosmetic repair that doesn't fool the cows for one minute and the cows push over the fence and wander back here again. Repeat cycle. It's apparently too much work and too much expense to fix the fence properly. When I'm ready to start running my own animals in that pasture, I'll bite the bullet and put up a new fence myself.

Until then, I'm caught in the middle of a good, old-fashioned range war. As I said, it's Texas!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

"The Best Laid Schemes o' Mice an' Men / Gang Aft Agley."*

In some areas of the country, schools still shut down during fall harvest so the kids can help bring in the crops. Hay is one crop truly weather dependent. You need several days of warm dry weather to cut the grass, dry it properly, then gather and store it.

I took 2-1/2 days vacation this past week to get my hay in. My goal was 150 bags. 250 will get the horses and goats through the winter when supplemented with leaves and plenty of grain. I already had 50 bags put up. With a small farm and no fancy equipment, I just mow with a brush hog then use a pull-along sweeper to gather the cut grass into piles a couple of days after it's been drying in the sun. Then I stuff the grass into large lawn-and-leaf trash bags that are easy for me to lift and transport.

It isn't terribly hard work, but it is time-consuming. And it's always a race against the rain -- and sometimes other things.

This time my haying was halted by two water leaks.

I have over 1/4 mile of water pipe on the property that I'm responsible for. With joints every 10 feet, that's a lot of potential for joint failure. Most of the PVC pipe -- which has a 25-year life expectancy -- has been buried for 26 years. Plus the ground moves. A lot. Luckily, PVC is easy to repair. Unluckily, the ground here is black clay -- the nastiest, gummiest kind of soil to work in, especially when it's wet.

The hardest part about repairing a leak in general is finding it. The pipes are 1 inch or less in diameter and run at least 18 inches underground. By the time I know one of the joints is leaking, there's generally a very large puddle in the area. If there are no bubbles to clue me in, I have to find the highest wet point and start digging there, hoping to at least run into the pipe so I can track back to the leaking joint.

After the first two or three spadefuls, the wet clay starts sticking to the shovel head. I use a trowel to scrape the clay off each time I bring the shovel up. Normally, I find the pipe on the first hole and the leak on the second hole, but it's slow, vile work to get there.

There are special compression joints you can buy to fix an inline leak that are quick and simple to use. If you have one handy. And if it's the right size. I try to keep an extra one on hand, but when I have 2 leaks in 3 days, the second leak means a 30-minute trip to the hardware store. When I'm covered in mud. Then there are the trips back and forth to the water main to cut it off and turn it on to test the fix. Sometimes it takes a couple of tries to get it right.

I then leave the hole uncovered for two or three days so I can watch the repair and be sure it's not going to have problems. Also to give the dug-out clay time to dry some so it's easier to shovel back into the hole. Meaning I have to put something over the hole so dogs and horses don't break a leg or a pipe. And hope it doesn't rain in the meantime, although I've had to fix leaks in the sleet and on 100-plus degree days. Assuming all goes smoothly, it ruins only the bulk of one perfectly good afternoon.

Two such afternoons when I've only given myself 4-1/2 days for haying means something gives. As the mornings are too damp for mowing and I have to wait into the beginning of the afternoon for the grass to dry enough to start sweeping or bagging it, I was really defeated before I started.

I'll likely have about 60 or 70 bags put up this weekend before the rain moves in late Sunday. I have perfectly good cut grass lying in a second pasture that will likely stay there now since the rain will ruin it and I'll soon need to turn my attention to bagging leaves for the goats (not that the leaves have started turning yet -- it's a true Indian summer here: almost mid-October and we're still near 90 degrees F [32 C]). The upshot is that I'll still have to buy hay to get the beasties through the winter.

Next year, things should be different. While I'll never be anywhere close to self-sufficient, I hope to be able to increase my self-sufficiency from the 2% mark I seem to be at now to about 20%. I think that's a do-able goal. That is, barring an increase in water leaks, drought, monsoons, equipment failure, ill health and any number of obstacles lurking around the corner.

At least I'm doing this because I want to and not because I have to. I have the fall-back of being able to afford the things I need. How folk ever manage now or have ever managed in the past to make a livelihood out of small-scale farming considering all the fickleness of fate is beyond me. I have new-found respect for all those who do.

*Robert Burns, "To a Mouse"

Friday, October 8, 2010

Synopsis 7: Murder on Music Row

UPDATE: A revised synopsis is now in the comments. And a revised query is in the comments there. Please check them out and offer your opinions!

When thirty-five-year-old Nashville hair stylist and puzzle connoisseur Nan Macomb hears a rumor her married lover’s wife is pregnant, she goes berserk. She ends the relationship, clears her calendar for two weeks and disappears with an assortment of how-to books: how to survive a break-up, how to rediscover one’s true self, how to have a spiritual awakening…

MURDER ON MUSIC ROW begins when Nan returns home from her self-imposed exile—optimistic, rejuvenated and ready to move on with her life. When she makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to drop by Hart and Soleman, the well-known music publishing house co-owned by her ex-lover, Randy Soleman, she finds him on the brink of death having been bludgeoned with one of his own Grammy Awards. When he dies, she becomes a murder suspect.

Nan comes across an e-mail Randy sent just before he was murdered telling her about some important documentation in his home safe and she enlists the aid of two longtime friends to help prove her innocence and find the real killer. Loralee, a flamboyant, happy-go-lucky country music singer wannabe, and Kat, an intelligent but depressed stay-at-home mom, are eager to assist.

Nan and her friends conspire to break into the safe to look for clues. When the security alarm is tripped they snatch the contents and go straight to Nan’s attorney’s office. From there they call the assistant district attorney who grabs the handsome lead detective on the case and joins the others to open the massive envelope of evidence. The suspect list grows as several employees are implicated in an elaborate embezzlement scheme at Hart and Soleman.

Nan and her entourage aren’t convinced the police have Nan’s best interests at heart so they start a secret investigation of their own. They divide to conquer the tasks of interviewing H&S employees, befriending Randy’s widow, Amy, and combing for clues throughout the Music City.

They find Randy’s business partner, Buddy, overly accommodating in his answers to their questions and Randy’s administrative assistant, Dixie, attaches herself to Nan’s hip, a bit too eager to help. They discover Randy’s brother, Matt, is excessively fond of both his brother’s wife and anything containing alcohol. The latter contributed to his discharge from the Navy, even though he was a shining star in the coding and decoding division.

Addictions abound as the trio of amateur sleuths discover both Buddy and Randy to be recovering sex addicts who previously hired their prey to work at H&S as a way to end their affairs by citing company policy prohibiting employee fraternization. The women don’t mind because they’re way over-paid and consider their former affairs job security.

As the investigation progresses tempers flare and Kat finds herself torn between her loyalties to her best friends and to the lonely, frightened widow who has turned to her for solace. Amy admits she faked her pregnancy, laments her lack of female friends and confesses to Kat she also had extramarital affairs, including one with her brother-in-law, Matt.

Nan is relieved when she learns Amy’s pregnancy was a ruse and Randy’s intentions did include a divorce. The morning of the memorial service, Nan makes another spur-of-the-moment decision and goes to the funeral home to have a long talk with Randy. He, of course, has nothing to say, but she feels empowered now that she’s had the last word.

At the funeral Nan is abducted by bungling kidnappers who seek the contents of the safe which they fear ties them to the embezzlement. They go to her house and tie her up with her best designer scarves as they rip her home to shreds looking for evidence that she’s already given to the police. Nan turns the tables on them when she finesses the minute details of how they pulled off their scheme. Bedlam ensues when Loralee drops by, sees the chaos through the window and alerts Nan’s parents and the police, in that order.

Later Nan jogs by H&S as Matt’s almost lifeless body is being removed from the building. The police are ready to close the book on Randy’s murder because Matt confesses to the crime in a suicide note. But when Nan sees the note, she recognizes Matt has used his coding skills to implant a secret message. She uses her flair for solving puzzles to untangle the code and reveal Buddy, who is almost bankrupt because of a gambling addiction, as the true murderer.

Comments

At 734 words, this is a nice length for a synopsis. Overall, I think the writing is clear and, for the most part, easy to follow, although I do think there are a few too many characters to keep track of. I've noted the other questions and comments I have below.

When thirty-five-year-old Nashville hair stylist and puzzle connoisseur Nan Macomb hears a rumor her married lover’s wife is pregnant, she goes berserk. She ends the relationship, clears her calendar for two weeks and disappears with an assortment of how-to books: how to survive a break-up, how to rediscover one’s true self, how to have a spiritual awakening…

Since this is backstory, I would put it in past tense. I would also assume this info is woven seamlessly into the first chapter, so I would be reading that first chapter very closely.

MURDER ON MUSIC ROW begins when Nan returns home from her self-imposed exile—optimistic, rejuvenated and ready to move on with her life. When she makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to drop by Hart and Soleman, the well-known music publishing house co-owned by her ex-lover, Randy Soleman, she finds him on the brink of death having been bludgeoned with one of his own Grammy Awards. When he dies, she becomes a murder suspect.

We've gotten a lot of character building for Nan up until now. A sentence that gives us some reaction on her part to these events would be nice. Also, since the query was so explicit as to her fingerprints being all over the Grammy, I think that detail should be here, too, so she's not only at the scene, but has a link to the murder weapon, too.

Nan comes across an e-mail Randy sent just before he was murdered telling her about some important documentation in his home safe and she enlists the aid of two longtime friends to help prove her innocence and find the real killer. Loralee, a flamboyant, happy-go-lucky country music singer wannabe, and Kat, an intelligent but depressed stay-at-home mom, are eager to assist.

I think the first part of this paragraph could be more proactive-sounding. Something like: An email from Randy sent less than an hour before his death clues Nan in on a possible motive. He needs someone to know about documents in his home safe and she's the only one he trusts. This also helps give the reader a look into how Randy feels about her, something we don't have now.

Nan and her friends conspire to break into the safe to look for clues.

This sentence is redundant. Nan's already enlisted their aid, so we can assume their conspiring. As they're looking for the documents, I wouldn't call that looking for clues.

When the security alarm is tripped they snatch the contents and go straight to Nan’s attorney’s office.

Yay! A smart move. We don't see this often enough in this type of book.

From there they call the assistant district attorney who grabs the handsome lead detective on the case and joins the others to open the massive envelope of evidence.

Now we're getting into too many details and too many people: attorney, asst DA, and handsome lead detective. None of these show back up, so you could just have Nan taking the sealed envelope to the asst DA to open.

The suspect list grows as several employees are implicated in an elaborate embezzlement scheme at Hart and Soleman.

Nan and her entourage aren’t convinced the police have Nan’s best interests at heart so they start a secret investigation of their own.

This seems a bit thin as a motive. What are Nan's best interests now that there's a host of evidence pointing away from her?

They divide to conquer the tasks of interviewing H&S employees, befriending Randy’s widow, Amy, and combing for clues throughout the Music City.

Here you say they divide up, but the next paragraph says "they" collectively, so seems a bit of a contradiction. I would delete as it seems redundant with the next bits anyway.

They find Randy’s business partner, Buddy, overly accommodating in his answers to their questions and Randy’s administrative assistant, Dixie, attaches herself to Nan’s hip, a bit too eager to help.

Is Dixie meant to be a red herring? She doesn't show up again, and the cast is getting large and confusing, so I would delete her.

They discover Randy’s brother, Matt, is excessively fond of both his brother’s wife and anything containing alcohol. The latter contributed to his discharge from the Navy, even though he was a shining star in the coding and decoding division.

Addictions abound as the trio of amateur sleuths discover both Buddy and Randy to be recovering sex addicts who previously hired their prey to work at H&S as a way to end their affairs by citing company policy prohibiting employee fraternization. The women don’t mind because they’re way over-paid and consider their former affairs job security.

This paragraph is an interesting bit, but is it relevant to the story or the investigation?

As the investigation progresses tempers flare and Kat finds herself torn between her loyalties to her best friends and to the lonely, frightened widow who has turned to her for solace. Amy admits she faked her pregnancy, laments her lack of female friends and confesses to Kat she also had extramarital affairs, including one with her brother-in-law, Matt.

Maybe turn this paragraph around so we see Kat becoming close to Amy first and then having her loyalties torn apart. Maybe that's what starts the tempers flaring? Because I see no motivation for flaring tempers here otherwise.

Nan is relieved when she learns Amy’s pregnancy was a ruse and Randy’s intentions did include a divorce. The morning of the memorial service, Nan makes another spur-of-the-moment decision and goes to She stops by the funeral home to have a long talk with Randy. He, of course, has nothing to say, but she feels empowered now that she’s had the last word.

At the funeral Nan is abducted by bungling kidnappers who seek the contents of the safe which they fear ties them to the embezzlement. They go to her house and tie her up with her best designer scarves as they rip her home to shreds looking for evidence that she’s already given to the police.

They kidnap and tie Nan up so I'm not seeing the 'bungling' connection. Also, it's presumed they fear the tie if they know about the contents of the safe. What is missing is how they know Nan took the evidence but not that she turned it over to the DA. Since the reader knows, "that's she's already given" can be deleted.

Nan turns the tables on them when she finesses the minute details of how they pulled off their scheme. Bedlam ensues when Loralee drops by, sees the chaos through the window and alerts Nan’s parents and the police, in that order.

I'm not sure "bedlam ensues" works. I also had to go back and look at who Loralee is since she was mentioned by name only once a few hundred words ago. I do like the "in that order" as that says a lot that can be inferred and very economically.

Later Nan jogs by H&S as Matt’s almost lifeless body is being removed from the building.

Why "almost lifeless"? Does it matter? Seems to add a level of complication that's not needed here.

The police are ready to close the book on Randy’s murder because Matt confesses to the crime in a suicide note. But when Nan sees the note, she recognizes Matt has used his coding skills to implant a secret message. She uses her flair for solving puzzles to untangle the code and reveal Buddy, who is almost bankrupt because of a gambling addiction, as the true murderer.

I think I would need a motive here for why Matt would encrypt a suicide note. He can't be concerned for his own life, so why wouldn't he want to publicly clear his name of murder? And why would he be suiciding now?

Anything else, anyone?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Query Rules - The Hard and the Fast of It

There are only three rules:


1. Focus on the story.
2. Keep it under a page (single-spaced, properly formatted).
3. Do not brag on or otherwise hardsell your writing.



Everything else you've heard are guidelines and personal preferences.

Put the title and word count in the first / last paragraph.
Put the personalization at the beginning / end.
Don't go over 150 / 250 / 350 words.
Write no more than 3 paragraphs total.
Talk about the story in 10-12 sentences.
Cap / Don't cap the name of the book.
Include / Don't include comparison titles.
Thank / Don't thank the agent for their time.

Different agents stress different things.
Different crit groups stress different things.
Writers stress over it all.

Pick a style that works for you and your book and perfect it.

If the query presents a story that resonates with an agent or editor and it's accompanied by amazing sample pages, no one's going to reject it because you put your contact info at the top and not the bottom. Unless, of course, an agent's guidelines specifically state one way or the other. An agent's guidelines trump all when querying that agent -- but one agent's guidelines should not be interpretted as how all agents prefer things.

Really, though, while many agents will have examples and suggestions on their sites, along with guidelines about how to format or send your query, you're not going to find many strict rules about how to construct the query itself.

Like many of you, I'm a student of the Evil Editor / Miss Snark / Query Shark / Nathan Bransford school of query writing, so my suggestions are generally along these lines:
  • Dive right into the story at the start of the query.
  • Title and word count near the end.
  • Personalization, if any, at the end. Unless the agent/editor has personally requested you to query them or you have been referred.
  • 5-7 paragraphs total, with 3-5 paragraphs about the story, 1 optional paragraph about you, 1 optional paragraph of personalization.
  • About 300 words.
  • Third person.
  • Present tense.
  • Cap the name of the book.
  • Be confident and ask for the send.
  • Subject line when emailing: "Query: Genre - Title"
    (Agents will often specify this as they'll have rules set up in their email programs to route queries properly. Do not cap any part of the subject line unless asked to since spam filters often look for all caps.)
But a 3-paragraph query that's just 200 words and leads with the title and word count can be just as effective in the right hands as the formula above. Don't let any critiquer pigeonhole you into something you're not comfortable with.

And remember, the hard truth is while you may have a solid query letter that does everything right, you may still have a low request rate. Run your query letter by a few more eyes, certainly, but don't automatically blame it for not garnering requests. It seems to be getting tougher and tougher out there. It could be you need a better hook for your story or to revisit your sample pages. Or that you're submitting a trendy story in a saturated market. Or that you just haven't found the right agent with the right chemistry yet. Or it's just not a highly marketable concept. Or the stars just aren't aligned properly and until you make peace with the fates, it ain't gonna happen. Because even a great query letter can only get you so far.