Quirkiness Isn’t Conflict

This is a longer one, so I’m going to break it down piece by piece:

Before: As a trusted friend, vocal advocate, and one of New York City’s finest orthopedic surgeons, Dr. Jane Smith has vowed to care for her own. When a grieving family files a malpractice case against her…

After: Dr. Jane Smith, one New York City’s finest surgeons, just got slapped with a malpractice suit.

Commentary: Keep it simple. Lead with a brief sentence that introduces a character in conflict. All that “trusted friend, vocal advocate” stuff isn’t relevant to the story problem, so it doesn’t belong in your query.

Before: …Jane starts falling for the charming, thoughtful attorney who’s prosecuting her—but to be fair, she didn’t know that Tim Brown was the plaintiff until it was too late!

After: The suit she can handle. But Tim Brown, the charming prosecutor who just so happens to be the plaintiff, might pose a challenge.

Commentary: Did I understand that right? Are the prosecutor, the plaintiff, and Tim all the same person? Clarify. Don’t make me guess. Also, “Attorney who’s prosecuting her” means “prosecutor.” Watch that wordiness. And be fair to whom? And too late for what?

Before: Join Jane as she unearths startling realizations about her hospital, plans her gay best friend’s engagement, indulges in trashy television with her sister, critiques sociocultural politics over tea, sets out to bake the perfect scones, and searches for a measure of inner peace. She fiercely denies her feelings for Tim, but when it turns out that their senses of justice aren’t so different after all, Jane might just have a change of heart.

After: Now, Jane must deny her feelings for Tim as she fights to clear her name. But her hospital has been keeping secrets, and [villain?] has set Jane up to take the fall…etc.

Commentary: Wait. What?!? OK. Pay attention because this is important. Gay best friend, trashy TV, sister, tea, scones, inner peace—none of that stuff is plot. Let me repeat that:

None. Of. That. Stuff. Is. Plot.

The story problem this query introduced is “Doctor faces malpractice suit while fighting romantic feelings for the prosecutor-cum-plaintiff.” That’s a great premise! Now keep me on that path by pitching what happens next (plot)—which must relate to your character’s plan to get herself out of her lawsuit-versus-love predicament. That is, it must relate to solving the story problem.

All that day-in-the-life stuff might be quirky and fun in the manuscript, but in your query letter, it’s passive. Zero tension. Zero conflict. And that doesn’t give me much hope that the manuscript will be an exciting read. Where’s the villain? The antagonistic force? Sadly, in this query, there wasn’t one.

On a final note, please don’t ask me to “join” your character as he/she moves through your story. It makes your query sound like a 1980s movie trailer: “JOIN MARTY McFLY AS HE TRAVELS THROUGH TIME IN HIS QUEST TO GET…BACK TO THE FUTURE!” IMHO, it just doesn’t work in a query letter.

Join me next time!

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