Writing Tips

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What’s in a Query? Everything and Nothing.

paper with who what why when how written on it is on the desk with a cup of coffee and a ball pen aside.When I tell people that I’ve never written a query that didn’t result in a request for pages, they can’t believe it. When I tell them I only ever sent out three (or six if you count the random assignments I was given to pitch to at conferences) queries, they are shocked.

But here’s the thing: I researched before I sent out my original set of queries. I looked not only at who represented what (which you can generally find on websites) but who sold what (which you can find out on Publishers Marketplace). I don’t care if an agent loves thrillers, if every sale she’s ever made is a cozy, she is probably not going to have the right set of contacts for thriller writers.

Because I belong to RWA, MWA, HWA and ITW, I am involved in a lot of discussions about queries. And I can also say that any query I’ve ever edited for someone has also resulted in a request for pages.

Your query is an enormously important piece of writing. If you’re looking for an agent or editor, it may be the only piece of writing the people you want to take you on ever see. If you’re self-publishing, think of it as your cover copy—it’s the thing that’s going to make readers pick up your book.

A query letter has some basic pieces, but the one most people get wrong is the part that is like cover copy, the part that hooks an agent or editor and makes them want to find out more. Because that’s the trick—it’s not a synopsis that gives away everything in your book, it’s just a taste, a tease, a tempt.

Here's a look at the cover copy for Every Dead Thing, which would make a perfect query:

Former NYPD detective Charlie "Bird" Parker is on the verge of madness. Tortured by the unsolved slayings of his wife and young daughter, he is a man consumed by guilt, regret, and the desire for revenge. When his former partner asks him to track down a missing girl, Parker finds himself drawn into a world beyond his imagining: a world where thirty-year-old killings remain shrouded in fear and lies, a world where the ghosts of the dead torment the living, a world haunted by the murderer responsible for the deaths in his family—a serial killer who uses the human body to create works of art and takes faces as his prize. But the search awakens buried instincts in Parker: instincts for survival, for compassion, for love, and, ultimately, for killing.

Aided by a beautiful young psychologist and a pair of bickering career criminals, Parker becomes the bait in a trap set in the humid bayous of Louisiana, a trap that threatens the lives of everyone in its reach. Driven by visions of the dead and the voice of an old black psychic who met a terrible end, Parker must seek a final, brutal confrontation with a murderer who has moved beyond all notions of humanity, who has set out to create a hell on earth: the serial killer known only as the Traveling Man.

The cover copy answers the three essential questions of a mystery or thriller query. (Different genres have different questions.)

    1. 1. Who is the protagonist? What drives him?
    2. 2. What's the conflict? How does he get sucked into something he can't deal with (and, of course, what is it that he's sucked into)?
    3. 3. What's the setting and mood?

Your query should show the mood of the book—you can tell me it's a humorous cozy, but your query should also be written in that voice. Setting is also important because in your book, setting should be a character (major or minor role, it's up to you, but it's there). You can see from the "bickering career criminals" that there will probably be some black humor and from the language — "shrouded", "fear", "torment"—that it will be grim. That's part of what an agent or editor is looking for. Not only what your story is about, but also that you're the right person to write it.

So take the time, polish your query over and over. Think it over. Send it to friends in a writing group who know nothing about your story. That's important because people who do know will fill in the blanks. Editors and agents don't have time to fill in the blanks. They need you to make it as simple and perfect as you can.

Laura K Curtis Laura K. Curtis gave up a life writing dry academic papers for writing decidedly less dry short crime stories and novel-length romantic suspense and contemporary romance. A member of RWA, MWA, ITW, and Sisters in Crime, she has trouble settling into one genre.

What If Jack the Ripper. . .

What if Jack the Ripper were alive today? Would he use Twitter? Would he understand it?

What if Jack the Ripper were alive in the 1950s and became a cardigan-wearing crooner? Would his music be any good? Would people think all the stabbing references unromantic? Imagine the holiday specials.

What if Jack the Ripper shot JFK? Has that been done before? It sounds like it's been done before. (Does it matter if it's been done before?)

What if Jack the Ripper were alive in the 1970s and got into est? How would that go?

What if Jack the Ripper were an extraterrestrial who gets befriended by a young boy who teaches him the meaning of family? The saccharine would be the deadliest part of that story.

What if Jack the Ripper were an ex-CIA agent? Trapped on a crippled passenger-filled spaceship? Being held hostage by Soviet agents? At Christmastime? Cue the clever quips.

What if Jack the Ripper joined a grunge band? A rap group? A boy band?

What if Jack the Ripper was turned into an accountant who didn’t have the most pleasant personality, oh but what he could do to a budget?

What if Jack the Ripper became a car salesman? What would he have to do for you to leave today with the best car on the lot?

What if Jack the Ripper were reborn as an opera singer? Would he be heralded for his work in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle? What if his heart was really in musical theater?


What if Jack the Ripper were a mystery writer? Would writing crime fiction quench his desires?

What if Jack the Ripper were a mystery writer who had to fill a blog post?

What if Jack the Ripper was a really cute and distracting puppy with big floppy ears and the most doleful eyes? Awwwww. Name him “Saucy Jack”! “He’s a cute pup,” you might say, “but the vet bills are from hell!”

What if Jack the Ripper were a cat? What if all cats are Jack the Ripper? They are, aren’t they?

What if Jack the Ripper were a modern teenager? What if all modern teenagers are Jack the Ripper? They are, aren’t they?

What if Jack the Ripper took a job as a department store clerk who enjoys his job and has pleasant relationships with everybody? Except fry cooks, for some reason.

What if Jack the Ripper took a job as a fry cook?

What if Jack the Ripper were alive today and ran for public office? Too easy? Would he more likely become a Hollywood producer?

What if Jack the Ripper were an attorney? Not much of a stretch there either. But what if Jack the Ripper sued for residuals?

What if Jack the Ripper lived in his parents’ basement but instead of going out at night or ever he just sat in front of telly all the time eating chips and talking about disemboweling this person and eviscerating that person so much that sometimes his parents feel the need to say, “Instead of just sitting there, get off your arse and do it. Just do something.” But then he still doesn’t. Although he does go on 4chan and Reddit a lot.

What if Jack the Ripper were your chiropractor? your allergist? your dentist? Too far?

What if Jack the Ripper were Hercule Poirot? What if Jack the Ripper were Miss Marple dressed as Hercule Poirot but not for Halloween?

What if Jack the Ripper were Sherlock Holmes?

What if Jack the Ripper were Sherlock Holmes’s smarter brother who is also a vampire and a werewolf?

What if Jack the Ripper were Santa Claus? And you forgot to leave him cookies. . .

—Richie Narvaez

•     •     •

Richie Narvaez is the award-winning author of Roachkiller and Other Stories. His fiction has appeared in Plots with Guns, Sunshine Noir, Spinetingler, and more. His debut novel Hipster Death Rattle will be published in 2019.

For the Love of Noir

Ask a roomful of writers or filmmakers to define what constitutes "noir" and you’ll get a roomful of answers. At one time or another, I’ve heard or read: it’s about the discontent of humanity, it’s about losers, it glorifies losers, everyone gets screwed, the subversion of justice, villains as heroes, even that old chestnut, “the dark night of the soul.” In other words, noir life ain’t pretty.

So if noir life ain’t pretty, what’s its lure? Why do people write it? Read it? Flock to its movies? Why are people willing to read hundreds of pages or sit through two hours of a movie about doomed souls in a world where everything is stacked against them and there’s probably no good way out?

Catharsis? There but for the grace of…? The satisfaction of “Aha! I knew the world is rotten?”

Could be. In part, anyway. But my gut tells me that’s not enough. There has to be something even deeper than mere catharsis, something seductive.

I suppose there could be many answers to my question about the lure and popularity of noir, but I think at its core it’s because noir is…beautiful.

There. I’ve said it. Noir is beautiful. It’s a seedy beauty bred in shadows, to be sure, but as any artist —painters, photographers and filmmakers in particular, even sculptors — will tell you, shadows can often be more interesting than light. Shadows carve, shadows clarify. And noir, if nothing else, is a narrative of shadows; real ones in its style, metaphysical ones in its morality. Noir, then, in its indelible and iconic visual style, even in literature, and its fearless embrace of a blurred philosophy of right and wrong, is art.

Noir, whether in dark alleys or on sun drenched streets, cracks open the surface of life where the bright smile and the positive attitude will, it is falsely promised, be rewarded, and instead reveals the shadowed life underneath. Emotions held in check on life's surface, noir releases in all their rawness: sadness, disappointment, desperation, rage, heartbreak, love curdling into hate. The men and women who live in the noir world, either by choice (criminals, sleazy business types, opportunists, corrupt officials, dirty cops, etc.) or circumstance (the victimized, the unfortunate, the helpless, the trapped), are either willing or forced to express emotions and engage in actions we might normally hold in check. Their lives may be going nowhere but to doom, but the trip there sure isn’t dull. It’s full of feeling, full of danger.

It’s beautiful.

—Ann Aptaker

•     •     •

Lambda and Goldie winner Ann Aptaker isn’t shy about telling you how much she loves her hometown, New York City. She swears she even feels its history; all those triumphs and tragedies of the famous and the forgotten. She’s now old enough to be part of that history, which she likes, except for the “old” part, which she’s iffy about. Ann is happy to bring you into that history in her Cantor Gold crime series.

Diversity Rises in Genre

As a doe-eyed kid growing up in Brooklyn, I didn’t actively look for Latino characters in all the buckets of pop culture I was gobbling. But when I came across them, glowing on the screen or speaking to me from a story, it was joyful. Hey, that guy looks like my dad. She sounds just like my mom. Of course, as a Latino, the faces I did find were pretty much limited to Zorro, Chico and the Man, and West Side Story. Still, this showed we weren’t just invisible sideliners in the world. We were a part of it.

One-to-one character identification isn’t necessary for a story to be accessible, of course, but when it’s a character from a group that is usually marginalized, that adds a freshness to an author’s story, and, yes, it’s a nice extra for readers from that marginalized population. Now if I were writing this post last year, I might’ve dared to say that the fight to bring this kind of diversity to pop culture was winning. But after last year’s U.S. elections, it seems that the advantages of diversity need to be brought up again and again.

Realism. Variety. Representation. And empathy, that lessening of fear of the Other. All understandably and logically good things, no?

Literary fiction tackles diversity and the social commentary that is inevitably a part of it, but that kind of book may at best have the air of a “Very Special Episode” or “Important Lesson Here” and at worse creak under the label of “political correctness.” This is why genre writing — mystery, science fiction, and horror — can be so important to diversity. While the primary responsibility of genre arguably is to entertain, some of the best genre writing delivers social commentary wrapped in a plot-driven story, and so like a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down — or, if you prefer, like an undercover cop, a Mak'Tar stealth haze, or a cloak of invisibility — mystery, science fiction, and horror can make a social or political statement subtle, not polemical, illuminating, not mawkish.

Most crime fiction reinforces the status quo of our lives. Justice prevails, crime doesn’t pay, everyone move along back to your homes now. But when there is Latina lawyer as a heroine, or a procedural series is set in Puerto Rico, that says not only that Latinos are part of the world, but also that we can be part of this tradition of crime fiction. Science fiction, through its frequent use of allegory, alludes to the possibilities or change or the consequences of not changing the injustices in our society. Horror also works at the allegorical level, exemplifying some deep fear in the zeitgeist.

I write in all three genres, and I’ve been privileged to have stories featured in several Latino-themed anthologies for crime and speculative fiction. My first reaction when I heard of these type of anthologies was that they were a sad sort of self-segregation. But stories ache to be told, and they will find any damn way they can to be told. Or, perhaps more accurately, their authors will find any damn way they can to tell them.

Recently, I had a story published in Latin@ Rising: An Anthology of Latin@ Science Fiction and Fantasy, the first-ever collection of United States-based Latino/Latina writers in speculative fiction and fantasy. By virtue of a vigorous Kickstarter effort by its editor, Matthew David Goodwin, the book got the attention of an independent publisher, Wings Press, and was published in January.

The anthology contains wonderful examples of diversity and social commentary and great plotting. There is a monster in "Sin Embargo," by Sabrina Vourvoulias, but there is also insight into the verbal-coding endured by immigrants, all taking place during the atrocities of Guatemala's dirty wars. Carlos Hernandez's "Entanglements" involves alternate timelines, but also make a comment on stereotypical notions. In my own story, “Room for Rent,” there are no Latino characters. But there are extraterrestrials who are forced to immigrate to Earth.

Now, one thing about such anthologies, titled as they are, is that they may only be read by the converted. But the (possibly a pipe) dream is that these stories and books won’t have to have labels appended to them forever, that these characters and issues can casually illuminate the experience of everyone, including that little kid who does not yet know the joy of finding a familiar face.

Originally published in Do Some Damage.

— Richie Narvaez

Richie Narvaez is the award-winning author of Roachkiller and Other Stories. His fiction has appeared in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery, Plots with Guns, Sunshine Noir, and Spinetingler.

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