Yes, this is filled with whisky

Yes, this is filled with whisky

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Last week Marilyn Dahl in a special edition of Shelf Awareness wrote a long piece about MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes. Here are the first two paragraphs.

Once in a while, a wondrous and remarkable book comes along, written from the deep places of the heart with passion and courage. Matterhorn is that book. Karl Marlantes's timeless tale of bravery, misery, stupidity and love is nothing short of a hero's journey, a quest for meaning. If I had any reservations about reading another novel about the Vietnam War, I soon abandoned them in this mesmerizing, heart-pounding ride through three months of combat, where the rhythm of war gripped me relentlessly.

Matterhorn begins in 1969, during the winter monsoon season in Quang-Tri province, where 2nd Lt. Waino Mellas is assigned to a fire support base with the 1st Battalion, 24th Marines. Commanding a rifle platoon of 40 Marines was not what he had in mind when he joined the reserves nor was actual combat part of the plan, but the shortage of infantry officers has changed that. Still, Mellas is ambitious and is soon trying to work the system to get ahead, take over the company, win a medal and save his own skin. At the same time, he fears he's too chickenshit to lead. He'll find out immediately, since the three platoons of Bravo Company have an assignment--occupy the hill dubbed Matterhorn.

This post is not about MATTERHORN although I did order a copy after reading Shelf Awareness.

Look at the first paragraph again. It's well written. There's nothing overtly wrong with it.

Now look at the second paragraph. Also well-written. Nothing wrong with it.

Which one is the better paragraph to answer the question: what is this book about?

I think it's the second one, hands down.

I see a lot of queries that sound like the first paragraph. What I want to see are queries that sound like the second.


dark_opus said...

Impactful illustration, Janet. Great "show" versus "tell" too, BTW.

Hopefully the rousing success of a query letter paragraph like #2 would at some point result in a paragraph like #1 getting created and posted. First things first though.

worstwriterever said...

The first paragraph reminds me of what that serious guy would be saying in the background of a movie trailer.

The second paragraph gets to the grit of what the novel is about. I personally don't like to read a bunch of numbers in a row like that, hard on my little eyeballs.

But yes I think the second paragraph is better overall. No serious movie guy overtones.

Kay said...

It's comments like this that keep sending me back to the drawing board on my queries.

cipherqueen said...

Great example!

Lisa Desrochers said...

I'm a little disappointed. I thought we were going to Disneyland.

Richard Lewis said...

I don't read queries for a living (or part of a living, anyhow) but I've read enough in critique groups to have formed a Partial Theory of Queries: if you you describe your book with sentences that could describe a bunch of other books besides your own, then your query is in the red zone heading for form rejection.

More succinctly: avoid the generic, use the specific.

Marilyn said...

I read your blog today - someone sent it to me since my review of MATTERHORN is cited. Then I started reading earlier entries and have to say, my to-order list has grown based on your recommendations - YOU, the two in the NOIR series, THE TAVERNIER STONES. Must. Stop. Now. I have work to do, galleys to read. Seriously, good recommendations.

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Even those specifics better have an edge to them or some zing that can create immediate images in the reader's mind that grab them at hello. How well does your pitch work in an elevator with a total stranger who is preoccupied with a dozen other things - and they're not in the mood to listen to you! In fact someone else (someone they know) is calling them on the cell. The phone is about to ring, so fire away, tell them what your book is about. Grab them before they grab that phone! Good luck!

John C said...

Classic example of tell versus show, respectively.

Honestly though: Another book/movie/play/musical about Vietnam or WWII makes me want to gouge the eyes out of the next person with a popped collar I see.

Clara said...

Wonderful advise as always Janet!

Circlexranch said...

Huh? Sorry I was distracted thinking about how much I want to read Matterhorn.

Oh wait, that's what a well-written query is supposed to do.

Wow! It does work.