Friday, July 15, 2011

Query 100!

Under a Starlit Sky

A quote tattooed on Jason Calvert’s arm is the one key to his past keeping him grounded. Its permanence, unlike the recurring dreams he has experienced since waking without his memory, is a comfort

Jason has been spending more time in a dream world than reality. Through haunting vivid dreams, answers begin to emerge - about his estranged mother he has not spoken to in thirteen years, the childhood best friend with abandonment issues and the meaning behind the words on his arm. A matchbook leads Jason from Victoria to Vancouver where he finds more clues to his forgotten identity: an old photograph, a lighter and a scrap of paper with letters and numbers. Desperate to piece together the mysteries of his past, Jason turns to an enchanting young psychic medium for help. Taking her advice of daring risks to awaken his subconscious, he goes hang-gliding and bungee jumping. Frustratingly, these only give him glimpses of jumbled memories.

While in Vancouver, Jason has a tense encounter with a stranger in a pub. However, Jason is no stranger to the man, who has stolen his job, his wife, his identity, and who will do everything in his power to keep Jason from remembering who he really is. In order to obtain his dream life, the man uses false allegations of sexual assault against a university student to take Jason’s job and blackmail to scare him away to keep a firm grip on what he has stolen. When Jason is reminded of the allegations that cost him his career, and ultimately his marriage, he confronts the man from the pub to find out why. In doing so, Jason realizes too late, that there is no guarantee he will get anything back in one piece.

UNDER A STARLIT SKY is a psychological thriller with fantasy elements complete at 60,000 words.

Comments

The author provided the word count in an addendum, so naturally it will be the first thing I jump on :o). If you’re really going to pitch this as a thriller, that’s pretty short. My understanding is 80-100K words average, although I had one agent recently scold me for pitching an 82K-word thriller as being too short (I did get many requests for the MS so I think her 90K word count minimum seems a little high). Still, 60K definitely falls well below normal word count for the genre.

But is it really a thriller? If it is, neither the synopsis we saw yesterday nor this query conveys that level of intensity. A mystery-suspense, perhaps, but where’s the ticking clock? Where are the dangerous stakes? Where are the hallmark conventions of the thriller that even a psychological thriller has? You’ll also want to convey a pulse-pounding sense of the story through word choice and syntax in your query.

The “with fantasy elements” also throws me completely. I don’t see anything in the query that even hints at fantasy. Jason seems to be having flashbacks to his earlier life and they’re being weirdly interpreted by his dreaming mechanism. That is the psychological part. The psychic’s advice in the query seems to be more psychological in nature. If the stranger really wants Jason's dreams (note the term "dream life" in the query), then that's not clear at all and I've misunderstood this story completely.

A quote tattooed on Jason Calvert’s arm is the one key to his past keeping him grounded.

I think I could let not knowing what the quote said slide if it wasn’t brought up again. It seems to be meaningful, but without specifics, the reader has no choice but to shrug her shoulders over it.

Its permanence, unlike the recurring dreams he has experienced since waking without his memory, is a comfort

I’m not clear on the comparison here. If the dreams are recurring, they seem a bit permanent, too.

Jason has been spending more time in a dream world than reality. Through haunting vivid dreams, answers begin to emerge - about his estranged mother he has not spoken to in thirteen years, the childhood best friend with abandonment issues and the meaning behind the words on his arm.

Is Jason choosing to spend more time dreaming because answers seem to be forthcoming there?

A matchbook leads Jason from Victoria to Vancouver where he finds more clues to his forgotten identity: an old photograph, a lighter and a scrap of paper with letters and numbers.

This is a rather abrupt segue to finding answers through dreams to a solid clue he’s following in the physical world.

Desperate to piece together the mysteries of his past, Jason turns to an enchanting young psychic medium for help. Taking her advice of daring risks to awaken his subconscious, he goes hang-gliding and bungee jumping. Frustratingly, these only give him glimpses of jumbled memories.

While in Vancouver, Jason has a tense encounter with a stranger in a pub.

Since Jason was in Vancouver in the last paragraph, we don’t need to be reminded he’s still there. “Tense encounter” is vague.

However, Jason is no stranger to the man, who has stolen his job, his wife, his identity, and who will do everything in his power to keep Jason from remembering who he really is.

One thing that confused me in the synopsis as it does here is whether the man has actually stolen Jason’s identity or forced Jason to take a new one on. Given the other circumstances, it doesn’t seem likely that the man is posing as Jason.

In order to obtain his dream life,

If you’re going to talk about dreams prevalently earlier and the man stealing bits of Jason’s life, then a reader may well take “dream life” to be Jason’s actual dreams rather than that he thinks Jason’s way of living is the one he wants for his own.

the man uses false allegations of sexual assault against a university student to take Jason’s job and blackmail to scare him away to keep a firm grip on what he has stolen.

Simple present tense doesn’t work in this sentence. “uses” should be either “used” or “is using” to convey whichever sense you’re intending.

When Jason is reminded of the allegations that cost him his career, and ultimately his marriage, he confronts the man from the pub to find out why. In doing so, Jason realizes too late, that there is no guarantee he will get anything back in one piece.

This ending seems not very thrillerish at all. “When Jason is reminded” is passive. I know you’re not bringing in another character, Todd, to keep the query clean – and that’s an excellent strategy – but this is a turning point moment, right? It doesn’t deserve passive treatment.

UNDER A STARLIT SKY is a psychological thriller with fantasy elements complete at 60,000 words.

My Version

After Jason Calvert wakes on the docks without his memory, he has only two things to keep him grounded: the quote tattooed on his arm and the recurring dreams that haunt his nights and intrude on his days. It’s in those dreams that answers begin to emerge: a mother estranged for thirteen years, a best friend with abandonment issues, and the meaning behind “Under a starlit sky” permanently inked along his forearm.

Something dark and evil also flutters across the dreamscape. Something that’s keeping him from remembering who he was. Something that moves just out of reach every time he tries to pin it down and confront it. Taking the advice of a young psychic, he tries to jolt his subconscious awake by engaging in risky activities. But hang-gliding and bungee jumping only result in glimpses of jumbled memories.

Following clues found in a matchbook, an old photograph, and a scrap of paper scrawled over with a mishmash of letters and numbers, Jason travels from Victoria to Vancouver looking for his forgotten past. He finds it in a quiet pub where a stranger waits. A stranger who’s stolen his job and his wife and forced him to abandon his old identity. A stranger who’s now more him than he ever was and who will do everything he can to keep Jason from remembering who he really is.

Snatches of memory soon reveal a sinister scam involving a university student, allegations of sexual assault, and blackmail. He tracks down the stranger, determined to take back his life.

Too bad there’s no guarantee he’ll get it back in one piece.

UNDER A STARLIT SKY is a psychological suspense complete at 60,000 words.

10 comments:

Caitlin said...

OMG. I feel so embarrassed! Having your line by line critique points out all the things that are wrong with my query (which is a good thing of course! :D) but in the most obvious way and i'm reading it thinking 'Of COURSE why didn't I see that?!' LOL.

Looking forward to reading others' comments/feedback - thanks for another great crit phoenix! your re-write is awesome!

Caitlin said...

oh, and meant to say (and i wish this was the case because it would make your re-write of my query even more awesome!) the quote tattooed on Jason's arm isn't 'Under A Starlit Sky' it's just a quote from a poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson(since he's a poetry teacher). *goes to look for poems with 'under a starlit sky' in them* lol

Wilkins MacQueen said...

Caitlin,
No need to be embarrassed.

Totally with Phoenix on the comments and her re-write is wonderful.

The mother and best friend made me think Jason is much younger than he is. That impression was cemented with the bungee jumping and hang gliding.

The second part of the query shows he is much older than I placed him.

The mother and friend, I'd take them out of the query and refocus.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

thanks

Caitlin said...

Hi Wilkins,

Thanks for your comments! Hmmm, that's interesting that at first you thought Jason was younger than he is, and then older (he's 37, btw). What age did you get the impression he was?

Also, in response to the fact that my manuscript is far too short at 60k, i'm in the process of bringing that up to (hopfully!) closer to (or at) 80k.

And I totally agree that Phoenix's re-write is amazing! (though i will be making very, very minor tweaks to it :))

Thanks! :)

Anonymous said...

Blogger swallowed my reply. I try again.

I put him at 17ish due to the mother/friend focus. The extreme sports added to my belief in his young age. The dreamy conditions in the beginning are overdone to me giving the effect of the query reading something like a short story instead of a sales tool.

I suggest starting with him waking up on the dock, the tat (maybe), the matchbook then go directly to the wife and evil one.


IMHO the mother and friend are secondary characters to the story and giving them full billing up front jams my gear for the crux of the query. Finding/convincing his wife of the nature of her second husband while getting his life back is the plot isn't it?

The tat - unless the wife has the same on her arm or the next line of the poem is it really critical in the query? If so, the importance of the tat needs to be clear.

Waking up on the docks staring at a tat and the matchbook are the only clues and continue.

So subjective, hope that is helpful. Look forward to reading the massage you give it.

Wilkins (blogger acting up on me today)

Wilkins MacQueen said...

Another thought - staring at the tat makes him wonder why he has Lord T on his arm for the hundredth time. Part of puzzle of his life/existance that he can't remember. Why Lord T he wonders and not a buxom cartoonish female figure.

So many directions the query can go in. Maybe put it aside for a bit.

You're close to what you want. Deep breath and relax, it'll get there.

AA said...

Congrats on 100, Phoenix!

Sorry I'm late joining in. I was out of town.

"Taking her advice of daring risks to awaken his subconscious" Wouldn't any normal person go to a liscenced psychiatrist or an expert in amnesia caused by trauma to the brain? Also, I've never in my life heard of risk-taking activity awakening subconscious activity. Usually, memories are awakened by strong associations such as smell, sometimes also sights and sounds, that have some connection to something in the past.

"In order to obtain his dream life," Do you mean this person is trying to somehow obtain Jason's dreams, or are you using "dream life" like "dream house" or "dream car?"

"the man uses false allegations of sexual assault against a university student to take Jason’s job" Didn't this happen before he woke up with amnesia? Don't forget basic courtesies to your reader such as using past tense when something happened before the point in time you're describing. In other words, it took me more than one read to figure out that the guy Jason meets in the pub had ALREADY done these things. You write it as if this is something he's currently doing. So you should say "used" instead of "uses." In the next sentence, Jason is reminded of it, and he can't be reminded of something that hasn't happened yet.

"who has stolen his job, his wife, his identity" This was confusing to me, too. When I think of stealing identity I think of what we refer to as "identity theft." I read more and got the idea that wasn't what happened.

No one will believe this is a fantasy if there are no fantasy elements, and no one will believe this is a thriller if there is no ticking clock. What must Jason do before what deadline? Jason must do x before y happens. That's a thriller. Jason must uncover a secret in his memories before a SPECIFIC thing happens that will stop him from ever getting his life back. Or: Jason must remember where certain evidence is that proves his innocence BEFORE a certain date or he will lose his medical license. Or: Jason must remember some info that can prove his nemesis is a criminal so he can discredit the man and get his life back, BEFORE the man has him killed.

Without the ticking clock, it isn't a thriller. I think Phoenix's "psychological suspense" fits better, but the query isn't very suspenseful. Try reading short synopses of suspense novels on the internet to get a better idea of the style. Michael Palmer and Harlan Coben are two names to start with.

Wilkins MacQueen said...

AA,
Did you hit it bang on. Sense of smell so important. That is a key memory unlocker. We often ignore that element in writing. I am sitting here remembering my BARN. Swept, sweet smelling shavings down, a dribble of water infused with lemon grass on the rubber runway. Fresh water in clean buckets, sweet feed and rich alfafa mixed with timothy. Each type of hay has a special aroma.

Beet pulp, soaked in hot water (okay a little rank), alfafa cubes with oats soaked in hot water, reminded me of Spring in winter's dark nights.

A block of salt minerals with molasses, pure inhalation bliss when I ripped open the plastic.

Getting carried away. Sense of smell is not used enough. Thanks for the memories!

AA said...

You're welcome.

Every time I smell something strongly reminiscent of my grandmother's house I am right back there.

It's gone now and my grandmother is also gone. She lived for 98 years. My grandfather built the house when they married.

I remember her shuffling around the stove with her old enamel pots. She'd use them until they wore through. She never bought anything she could avoid buying. If we'd pick enough gooseberries for her, she'd bake a gooseberry pie.

The smell was a combination of cooking in fat, musty old stuff in drawers, and her old-fashioned face powder.

We'd go to her house after school and eat homemade cookies and we'd all watch the Andy Griffith show. The cookie recipe was her deceased daughter's. She outlived a few of her children, fortunately not my father.

Your barn smells really nice!