Sunday, December 21

Real Life Diagnostics: A Look at a Science Fiction Mystery Query

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Five 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through January 17.

This week’s questions:

1. Does it make you want to read the book?

2. What parts hook you the most?

3. Where do I lose your interest as you read the letter?

4. What suggestions do you have for improvement?


Market/Genre: Futuristic Mystery Query

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Dear [Agent Name],

Inside the protective dome over Tallahassee, Florida, a killer is eliminating as many blind citizens he can. He can’t let them pass on defective genes in a world of limited resources, where pollution has all but destroyed the earth and almost wiped out the human race.

The killer is working with the fanatical Survivalist Clan to genetically enhance the human species – and cull the defects – to ensure humankind survives the pollution.

Murder Investigator Em Raven is assigned the case. When her little sister Merribell witnesses the killer’s botched attempt to murder her blind neighbor, the killer goes after Mer. Em is frantic as she can’t stand to lose another person she loves.

Mer escapes the killer by running outside the city’s dome, hiding with a secret tribe that seems to be able to withstand the pollution.

Outside, Mer discovers she is different, too, and can breathe the polluted air. Mer is terrified when she’s captured by the Survivalist Clan for her priceless genes and comes face-to-face with the killer.

Em must stop the Clan and the killer or many more will die – including the little sister she loves.

BLIND MURDER is my first novel, a 90,000 word murder mystery readers would enjoy. My activist day job inspired the book, as I’ve found all too many people don’t want to think about the blind, and are tired of hearing about the environment. Interwoven throughout, these themes deepen the story.

I would love to send you the manuscript. Thank you for your time and consideration.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Dear [Agent Name],

Inside the protective dome over Tallahassee, Florida, a killer is eliminating as many blind citizens he can. [He can’t let them pass on defective genes in a world of limited resources, where pollution has all but destroyed the earth and almost wiped out the human race.] I like that there's some world building here, but it feels like it gives away the mystery side of it in the first paragraph. Perhaps focus on how being in a dome you can't leave makes this even more terrifying? Or other critical elements that bring in the survivalists if that's relevant?

[The killer is working with the fanatical Survivalist Clan to genetically enhance the human species – and cull the defects – to ensure humankind survives the pollution.] Perhaps cut this paragraph, as we don't need to know the full scope of why he's killing in the query.

Murder Investigator Em Raven is assigned the case. Perhaps add some more about who she is and what she faces to give a hint of the goals/stakes. [When her little sister Merribell witnesses the killer’s botched attempt to murder her blind neighbor, the killer goes after Mer.] This feels like the start of a new paragraph that shows the core conflict of the novel and the problem EM is going to face [Em is frantic as she can’t stand to lose another person she loves.] So she does what? This doesn't tell me what the plot is going to be, so it doesn't move the story. Perhaps use something that shows what Em does now that her sister is in danger

[Mer escapes the killer by running outside the city’s dome, hiding with a secret tribe that seems to be able to withstand the pollution.] This feels like a switch in protagonists, and a new story. It also doesn't tell me why she does this. Did she know about the tribe?

Outside, Mer discovers she is different, too, and can breathe the polluted air. [Mer is terrified when she’s captured by the Survivalist Clan for her priceless genes and comes face-to-face with the killer.] This feels more like the climax of the novel, but without context I'm not sure what any of it means.

[Em must stop the Clan and the killer or many more will die – including the little sister she loves.] This feels weak because the there's no conflict, and since she's the hero we know she'll stop him. It's the how and what price she'll pay that will hook readers.

BLIND MURDER is my first novel, a 90,000 word [murder mystery] This doesn't feel like a murder mystery to me, but a science fiction novel. It doesn't have the mystery tropes [readers would enjoy.] Cut. You don't know if they will or not, and it risks sounding presumptuous [My activist day job inspired the book, as I’ve found all too many people don’t want to think about the blind, and are tired of hearing about the environment. Interwoven throughout, these themes deepen the story.] I'd cut this as well, as this tells the agent why people wouldn't want to read your book. It also suggests this is a preachy issue book about the author's hot button topics, which will likely turn most agents off

I would love to send you the manuscript. Thank you for your time and consideration.

The questions:

1. Does it make you want to read the book?


Not yet, because I'm not sure whose story it is and what the novel is going to be about. The query is a little scattered, so it's hard to see what the actual plot is. On one side is the murder mystery, but then it seems to shift halfway through and focus on Mer with an adventure outside. Is this about Em trying to find and stop a killer or Mer discovering she's special and that there are others out there like her?

What is the core conflict of this novel? Stopping the killer feels secondary to me, but the survivalists don't seem to have any plan that needs stopping, so I'm not sure where the plot will come from. There's no conflict here yet. There are things that happen, but it's the conflict that drives a novel and what you want to show in the query.

You mentioned in your email this is told from alternating POVs, and I'm going to guess it switches between Em and Mer. The challenge in the query is to show both storylines and how they connect. Right now, the events have a "and then this happens, and then this happens" feel to them, which doesn't show how the character goals and actions create the plot. You want to look for things that show what the characters do that make plot happen. They're the ones driving the story, they aren't sitting around waiting for things to happen to them.

(Here's more on the "and then this happens" problem and how to fix it)

What conflict are these two people facing? What's at stake for them? It's easy to say "Mer's life" but that's actually a weak stake, as readers will know she's not actually going to die, especially if she's a POV character. It's also a stake that never escalates, which doesn't give the plot anywhere to go. How do things get worse as the novel unfolds? What terrible choices are these two going to have to make? What are the consequences of making those choices?

I'd suggest looking for ways to connect the plot more in the query to show how these two storylines overlap. Right now it feels like the killer is only there to get Mer out of the dome and discover she has abilities. But Mer having abilities doesn't seem to matter in the overall plot.

(Here's more on finding the core conflict)

2. What parts hook you the most?


I find someone murdering the blind intriguing, as it's a predator going after people who are more vulnerable. That's a bad person who must be stopped. Having it inside a dome where people can't escape adds a very nice "bottle story" element that helps raise tensions. What do you do when a killer is loose in a controlled environment?

(Here's more on finding your hook)

3. Where do I lose your interest as you read the letter?

About halfway through when the story seems to change from a murder mystery with Em as the protagonist to a sci fi novel with Mer as the protagonist, and I no longer know what the book is about.

The specifics here have no context, so they don't mean anything to me. What I get from this is that a killer is murdering the blind for a survivalist cult who want to play with genetics and save mankind. There's no sense of a larger issue, no connection to the protagonists other than coincidental (Em just happens to get the case, the sister just happens to witness a murder, she just happens to run into people like her). If Em and Mer weren't in this book, what would have happened differently? What do they do to change how this world is affected by these people?

Don't look so much at what happens to the character, look instead at what the characters do to change how the story unfolds.

(Here's more on how choices affect plot)

4. What suggestions do you have for improvement?

I suspect the trouble here stems from difficulty writing the query, not the novel (which is fairly common). I think this is just trying to put too much in to cover the entire story and not spending enough time on hooking the agent.

A query is very much like the cover copy of a novel, but with specific details instead of being vague (you don't want to give things away on cover copy, but you do want to share the details on a query). You don't need to summarize the entire book, just the setup, characters, and a little setting.

Since this is a sci fi novel, world building and setting are important, so perhaps spend a little more time in the first paragraph introducing the world and the problem they face. There's a killer on the loose and they're all trapped there. That lets you show the setup and world. You don't need to explain why the killer is killing here unless that's a clue Em finds right away and means something to her. For example, like if the survivalists are a major threat to the dome and everyone knows it, and this guy being connected to them makes that a much bigger problem.

Then introduce the protagonists. Em is an investigator in a world that is suffering from environmental problems, and those problems affect her in X ways. Mer is her sister trying to do X and having Y problems. Show both characters and what problem they face at the start of the novel, and what their goals are that will pull them into the core conflict of the novel.

Next, introduce that core conflict: "When X happens...Mer becomes a target." This seems to be the problem Em is going to spend the novel trying to resolve, and the reason Mer gets involved outside. But then what? What do these two events mean on a larger scale? Why is Mer's experience outside important to Em's case? How does it help her or make it more complicated? How does Em's case affect Mer's problem?

Final paragraph, bring it all together and show the stakes and what has to be done. You don't need to spell it out, but focus on Em and Mer and their actual problem. Em must do what to find her sister? What's the actual goal with the conflict? "Find the killer" is too vague for a query, as it tells an agent nothing about the plot. Every murder mystery on the shelf has that as a goal. What does Em need to do and what's in her way of doing it? Do the same thing for Mer (if she is indeed the other POV character) and show the problem and conflict she faces.

The reasons can be as basic as "Mer is kidnapped by a radical cult who want her genes." It tells an agent what the problem is and why, but leaves you space to focus on what the protagonists' do. Does Em need to risk her life to go outside the dome? Doe she face other conflicts to saving Mer and stopping these people?

Queries are about piquing curiosity enough to ask for more, not about summarizing the entire book. Look at the first 25% of the novel and show that, then wrap up with the stakes and what Em/Mer have to do. Not what they actually do, just what they need to do. You want agents wondering if these characters will be successful and ask for pages to find out.

Also think about how you can show the escalating stakes and tensions. Small problems turn into bigger problems with higher stakes, then it happens again, and then the third time it's the biggest stake of all. The goal of the query is to show an agent this novel has a plot that will draw a reader in and keep them.

You might try reading the cover copy of books similar to yours and/or with two POVs to get a feel for how other authors have handled it. Romances can give you some ideas there, as many of those use two POVs.

(Here's more on writing a query)

Overall, isn't that far off from working, and I think if you shift focus to showing what the problems are and what the characters do to fix those problems, thing will fall into place.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

1 comment:

  1. I had the same reaction about the two protagonists - I was really hooked into the idea of the sci-fi thriller murder mystery inside the dome, and the switch to the second point of view character sounded like a different book, a YA self-discovery/growing up story.

    This sounds like a really cool universe, though. Best of luck with
    it!

    J'aime

    ReplyDelete