Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Query Quagmire #1

TITLE: The Poachers' Code
GENRE: Adult Mystery/Suspense

I hope you will consider THE POACHERS' CODE, my 91,000-word upmarket suspense novel.

While researching an invasive beetle ravaging New Hampshire's woodlands, an entomologist must confront the murder she covered up as a child, before her silence ruins an innocent man’s life.
Sadie Kessler has spent the past three decades trying to forget about the body in the woods, the murder she and her estranged childhood friend Daniela covered up as kids. Now an entomologist with the state forestry department, Sadie is on the verge of proving an invasive beetle is triggering forest fires when she receives a text from Daniela. They found him. Daniela begs Sadie to return home—her undocumented father has been falsely accused of the decades-old murder and may be deported if they don’t reveal the truth. Ignoring threats from the presumed killer, Sadie returns to the woods of her youth to search for evidence that will exonerate Daniela’s father, knowing it could destroy not only her life, but the lives of people she cares about. The real killer follows her into the woods—and so do the forest fires that edge closer as local officials dismiss Sadie’s warnings about the beetles. Forced to decide what she is willing to sacrifice to protect the people and the forest she loves, Sadie will learn that no one can hold back the power of Nature—whether in the form of species migration, wildfire, or the truth.

THE POACHERS’ CODE will appeal to fans of Megan Miranda’s All the Missing Girls, Emily Fridland's History of Wolves, and Jane Harper’s The Dry.

As a journalist, I have published more than a thousand articles in The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. I workshopped THE POACHERS’ CODE in GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, a year-long, MFA-level novel intensive. I have a Master’s in Creative Writing from Harvard University Extension School and have published short stories in the Charles River Review and The MacGuffin. I contribute regularly to DeadDarlings and GrubStreet’s writer’s blogs. I also own and operate a 100-acre organic farm in rural New Hampshire, where invasive insects chasing climate change present a looming threat —an unavoidable phenomenon scientists worldwide are bracing for.

Thank you for your time and consideration of THE POACHERS’ CODE.

Sadie peeled a strip of bark off yet another dying pine tree. Her fingers, blistered and raw from hunting the elusive pine beetle, froze as a gush of tiny insects writhed against the exposed wood. Beetles scattered for cover, but not fast enough.

“Got you.” Her voice, scratchy and dry from not having spoken in days, echoed off the granite boulders on the sparsely wooded slope. She scraped the insects into a small envelope and tilted her head up to the morning sun. Tomorrow she would storm her research director’s office, dump bags of dead beetles on her desk and her lap. Now no one could deny the invasive insects had migrated from the Rockies to New England.

‘I told you so’ burned sweet on her tongue.

This drought. This wildfire. This beetle. With a four degree increase in summer temperatures, New Hampshire had practically invited the beetles and the fires that followed them. She could head off the wildfires if someone would just believe her. The anticipation of being right, of being the hero, had lulled her to sleep the past several nights under a canopy of stars.

Smoke scratched the back of her throat, confirming the late summer wind was already pushing the fires east. She paused for a sip of warm water. Working alone in the woods, Sadie marked time in elevation and ounces of water. She was running out of both.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Holy shmokes, this is good! And timely! We've got Borer Beetles killing all the Ash trees in Oregon. In another year or two, there won't be any Ash trees left. And forest fires are eating up the rest of the state. It's like you're looking out my window at the dying trees and layers of ash blown in from the fires.

    Added to that is a compelling mystery, a childhood trauma, another timely issue (undocumented friend/family member), and a killer. So hooked!

    I see nothing to change. Maybe you could add an "and" in the sentence: "Tomorrow she would storm her research director’s office, dump bags of dead beetles on her desk and her lap." But that's it. Mysteries with an ecological edge are right up my alley, and your resume is everything I ever wanted mine to be. Please autograph my copy "To DJ".

    Excellent work!

  3. Wow. Solid work! Your hook is strong and you successfully stated the plot and the stakes in one sentence. Kudos!

    I have very little to comment on this fantastic query, but did question that the biggest risk to the father would be deportation if he were found guilty. Unless there was a reason you chose this as the highest stake for him, perhaps consider including something along the lines of "risks serving time on death row, or facing deportation for failing to cooperate ..."
    And, maybe choose to strengthen the word that the killer "followed" her into the woods and replace it with the word "stalked." Stronger and fits with your voice. And besides, fire can feel as if it is stalking.

    By the way, I loved the simple "They found him" text!

    Your resume is stellar. Very impressive. I am clear that you have the credentials for this novel.

    There was only one tiny issues in the first 250 words that struck me as being off. That she spoke with a scratchy, dry voice, yet it echoed off granite boulders.

    I look forward to reading this book when it goes to print, and I believe it will. Great topic, sharp voice, mystery, high stakes, you gave it all.

    I wish you the best of luck. And like DJ, I would love my copy autographed. :-)

  4. This.

    I want to buy the hell out of this book.

    Nothing to critique. Hit me up when you're published so I can read this thing!

  5. This is about as good of a query as I’ve ever read. You clearly have done your homework and you’ve put together a very professional letter. Your credentials are super solid and are a definite selling point.

    Having said that, I think you’re doing yourself a disservice by putting ‘researching an invasive beetle’ as the very, very first point of interest in the query. Considering the genre and the fact that you actually have a murder mystery and high stakes, it would probably be much more effective to start with the murder.

    In fact, the paragraph that starts with ‘Sadie Kessler has spent the past three decades trying to forget about the body in the woods.’ is the crux of the story. I would even make it a sentence and let it hang up there all by itself as its own paragraph. (and I would take out the word ‘about’. She’s trying to forget the body, and that’s a stronger thing to say).

    The stakes here are, as far as I can tell: Daniela’s father would be accused of the murder (but wouldn’t he go to prison as opposed to simply being deported?), AND, what’s even more high stakes, the killer follows her into the woods! Holy smokes, that gets kind of lost in the second paragraph. I would definitely give that much more focus.

    I really like the symmetry of the killer and fire following her into the woods though. Basically, what I’m saying is you have perfect stakes and a great theme. But they’re getting a bit lost inside the science lesson and I don’t think the science is what will be the selling point.

    I do believe you will get this published though. It’s a very strong beginning already.

    Good luck!

  6. Very interesting story and solid query. I would recommend deleting (or reworking the tag line... While researching an invasive beetle ....) and open with the Sadie Kessler had spent...

    Best of luck in your quest.

  7. I like a lot about this query! You do a great job of laying out the conflict and core sources of tension in your letter. I like the juxtaposition of the immediate human problems and the looming threat of the forest fires. I can imagine this as a tense and gripping (and timely) story.

    I think you've chosen a title that feels a little bit small for the project you describe. I see why you chose it, but it doesn't grab my attention and, if this was a project I was submitting to editors, I would ask you to change it. (A truly stellar title can make all the difference in a submission.) I'd recommend a title with a slightly larger commercial appeal. Try to brainstorm something with little more danger--something that tells readers what is at stake/what kind of excitement they can expect when they open the book.

    You have a nice voice and you immediately put tension on the page, which is such a great sign. That said, I think you may want to try reading aloud to edit for sentence flow. Some of your sentences are working too hard. What I mean by that is: you pack a lot of description into a small space and, as a result, those sentences are dense. If you edit by reading aloud, you'll find the places where the sentences need to breathe more. I'd even consider deleting the first paragraph altogether and using the second paragraph as your entry point--it is a little more immediate and starts us off with your main character.

    This is a promising start. Good luck!

  8. Just wanted to add: Your bio section really caught my eye! I love that you have a specific professional background in both writing and in dealing with invasive insects. It makes you immediately more marketable as an author and I know editors would perk right up when reading that in a submission.

  9. I appreciate the strong description of the heroine and the stakes. There’s a good sense of tension and I never would’ve guess I’d be this curious about beetles!

    There’s a lot of information packed into your sentences and I’d recommend breaking up paragraphs to use the occasional lone sentence for impact. For example:

    They found him.

    Stand alone, this sentence is great to hook me. Buried in the query paragraph, I feel it’s tumbling among the information being provided in the paragraph.

    In your sample, I second Danielle’s suggestion of reading your work aloud to adjust the flow of your phrasing and sentences. Your writing is strong and would be even better with the tweaks that might come out of editing in this way.

    That said, I’m hooked enough to go on reading for another page or two.

  10. Sorry to be so late with this.

    As usual, I advise dropping the logline first paragraph, and just start with Sadie. I might also split the big paragraph after "They found him", and recast the next sentence: "Daniela begs Sadie to return home and help save her undocumented father, now accused of the decades-old murder, from being deported."

    Overall, the query is decent, if workmanlike; fortunately, all it has to do is get me to the point of reading those 250 words. At which point I would immediately be requesting more, because that opening is that good. If the rest of the MS is that well done, you've got a winner.

    Good luck!