Aug 17, 2011


Dear Agent,

Getting into medical school was easy. The hard part was staying out of jail.

Thanks to his photographic memory, medical student Raj Mok has never encountered a test he couldn’t ace. Unfortunately, becoming a doctor involves these things called patients…and they don’t come in multiple choice.

Raj rationalizes the death of his very first patient—a terrible accident. But when a young professional enters the hospital healthy and leaves paralyzed and divorced under his care, Raj is devastated. If only it ended there.

With zero confidence in his abilities, Raj is on the verge of quitting when he is teamed up with Cindy. Innocent flirtation leads to a blossoming relationship with the cute intern. Just as things start to look up, Raj discovers a patient of his has been knowingly infecting several women with a lethal sexually transmitted illness...and Cindy is the most recent victim.

Suddenly Raj must decide if his loyalties reside with his patient or in the sweetness of revenge. The Hippocratic Oath be damned; if he’s learned anything from his patients, it’s that doing what’s right isn’t necessarily the correct answer. Too bad the law doesn’t agree.

Educated at UCLA and Stanford, I am a practicing physician in San Diego, California. I have authored over 40 peer-reviewed academic articles in numerous journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine.

MODERN MEDICINE is a medical thriller complete at 75,000 words.

Thank you for reading and commenting on my query. (Thanks for this great resource Rick.)




Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

Your query is a little too vague. Is his choice between contacting law enforcement about the patient (who is committing a crime) or keeping his oath (and thereby his medical license)? Or is he contemplating killing the former patient himself?

Rick Daley said...

I really like the moral dilemma presented here, but I agree with Dominique that the query is too vague.

On one hand, it shows style, which is good. You have a voice that is well suited for a medical thriller. The problem for me is that for the query, that suspense-building voice has gone into overdrive, and I'm left asking too many questions:

- Is Raj still in med school or has he graduated? If he's graduated, your opening line is backstory.

- How does his photographic memory play into the story? If it doesn't, don't mention it. You are limited in your words, use only those that matter most.

- Does the first patent play into the plot, or is it character development?

- Who enters the hospital healthy, other than someone who works there?

- Is Raj at risk for having picked up the disease from Cindy? Is he mad Cindy cheated on him (or did she not get the disease sexually, e.g. was she injected)?

If you choose to revise this, don't try to answer all of my questions. Try to eliminate the need for me to ask them.

I see potential in your writing, good luck!

Anonymous Author said...

It's an interesting story idea.

Lose the first line-- it's not supported by the paragraph that follows it. That paragraph is much stronger and should open the letter.

Watch out for diction shifts like this:

Innocent flirtation leads to a blossoming relationship with the cute intern.

Do you see the problem with the above? You have a lot of this type of shift; the word "cute" doesn't match the other words in the sentence. It reads a bit awkwardly.

You want to keep the same voice throughout.

Something more like:

With zero confidence in his abilities, Raj is on the verge of quitting--until he meets intern Cindy. She's beautiful, brilliant, and witty... and she likes him, too. But just as things start to heat up, Raj discovers a patient of his has been knowingly infecting women with HIV...and Cindy is his most recent victim.

Do you see the diff? Specificity, less psychological distance, and more danger.

Now, as to the shape of the query itself-- there seem to be two different conflicts in your story:

1. Raj doesn't know if he's cut out for medicine. His patients either get worse, or die.

I can't tell if this is because Raj is incompetent, or because we all die and Raj has just never faced up to that before.

2. Raj has to decide what to do when one of his patients harms his girlfriend.

I'm not sure why that's such a difficult decision-- it's a crime, isn't it? So he can just report the guy to the police.

Anyway, you need to decide what is the real central conflict of your novel, focus your query on that, and be specific about what's at stake.

Now, can you tell me why I've had a toothache for 8 years and the dentist says there's nothing wrong? Thanks.

gj said...

Part one (because it's too long to post in one piece): Nitpick first -- no need to mention medical journals; they're such a different type of writing that they don't add anything to the real credential, namely, that you're a doctor.

Now, for the big picture. A medical thriller query needs to do two things: 1) establish your bona fides as a medical expert, and 2) pitch an interesting medical issue. I'm not really feeling either one here (which isn't to say you lack bona fides, but just that you're not using them -- there's nothing in here that couldn't have been written by a person who's never been within 100 feet of a hospital, and it could even have been written by someone who knows absolutely ZERO about medicine and med school -- it's the vagueness problem).

The first paragraph is backstory. Cut it. Same for the second. Cut it. Doctors lose patients. It sucks, but it's a fact of life/death/medicine. And you're not indicating that THIS doctor is doing anything that any other doctor would have done differently. People die. Unless, in fact, he SHOULD be worried, because he's an incompetent jerk. (As an aside, I don't even know what field he's practicing in. ER? GP? Radiologist? What?)

Most of the next paragraph is also backstory: doctor gets girlfriend. Not exactly an exciting concept.

The story starts here (slightly paraphrased):

Doctor Raj's new girlfriend is dying of [name the disease or what, exactly, it does; is it AID, which is bad but not necessarily terminal, or does it come with a five-day death sentence?], and she caught it from one of Dr. Raj's patients.

gj said...

Part two:
Now, write the rest of the query from scratch. Get inside Raj's head. Does he REALLY think, "Oh, so sad, my beloved soul mate is dying an excruciating death, and I know who did it, but, great big sigh, the guy happens to be my patient, so I can't turn him over to the cops. I'm going to lose some sleep over this. So sad." Or does he think, "I'm going to kill that bleeping bleepity bleep of a psychopathic patient, and the bleeping licensing authorities can bleep their medical license."

If it's the former, there's not much thriller in the story, and, personally, I don't really want to spend four hours of my time with that person. Why would any reader want to spend time with him? That's what you need to pitch.

You're over-thinking this. It's not a med school ethics essay. Raj is a person, or at least you need to make him seem like a person, not a theoretical construct. As a doctor, you need to create distance when you write, but as an author, you need to create emotion and CLOSENESS to the character's thoughts/feelings.

Oh, and when you rewrite the query, spend more time on the bad guy. If he's just some young punk who thinks it's cool to spread the disease around, it really isn't going to be all that difficult to stop him. OTOH, if he's some criminal mastermind (I dunno -- billionaire who has bought off or killed off the cops who investigated him previously when suspicions arose, and he's the CEO of the drug company that's developing the vaccine against whatever he's spreading around), then I'm going to be impressed when the little, powerless protagonist beats the bad guy. In other words: the odds should be stacked against the doc, with an antagonist who SHOULD win, except that the protagonist somehow manages to beat the odds.

Also, you might want to check with a lawyer, because a chunk of your plot seems to be: he'll go to jail if he rats out a patient, and I don't think that's true. It might get him censured by his licensing board, but I suspect there's an exception (in the law, if not in strict medical-ethics terms) for ratting out a patient who is killing other people.

And another "also" -- if that is, in fact, your plot (choosing between doing nothing and telling the cops, at risk of his license) than it may be mis-categorized as a thriller. For a thriller, the doc's life needs to be at risk, and you haven't said enough about how it's at risk. It's got to be more than navel gazing.

Anonymous Author said...

Actually, even though I usually rail against including bios and inappropriate writing credentials, I rather liked the 40+ journal articles. Not just a doctor, but respected in his or her field, whatever it is. Makes me think Abraham Verghese.

But I do think there is a preconception in the industry that doctors are going to deliver wooden, lifeless prose. (Which seems to have worked just fine for Robin Cook, but.) So this query does have an added burden of showing that the writer can write in an appropriate voice.

Anonymous said...

yankinfrance here...

I kind of liked the first line, and think it works as an interesting hook. But the rest of the query fails to deliver on it. Worse, it seems the hook is for a different novel entirely.

The others have ably covered the problems with this query (especially the fact that it's almost all backstory).

For a thriller, I'd expect the query to start with the action -- and not let up.

I also expect to be engaged by the protagonist -- but this query makes him seem like a spoiled, dangerous loser who is more interested in his love life than becoming a decent doctor.

Frankly, the clunkiness of the writing here portends little good for the novel itself. If the author is unable to recognize the poor stylistic choices in just these few paragraphs, how can he/she handle 75,000 words?

But poor writing has never prevented a lot of books from reaching the bestseller lists.

For the bio section I feel "I am a practicing physician in San Diego, California" is sufficient. It doesn't matter where you went to school, this comes off as puffery. And having worked with a number of researchers in the past trying to get their writing to read somewhat like English, I wouldn't mention the journal credits.

Anonymous Author said...

YIF, that's why the hook doesn't work. It appears unrelated to the story. There's nothing in the query to suggest Raj is headed for jail-- except the undeveloped hint in graf 5 that Raj is going to take revenge.

(On the guy who infected Cindy, or on Cindy herself? Not clear.)

I don't know how necessary good hooks are in query letters, anyway. They're desperately important to actual novels.

If the writing in the novel is as awkward as that in the query, then yeah, there's a problem. But I wouldn't assume that. Plenty of good writers can't write good query letters.

Anonymous said...

Well, there's awkward query and awkward writing. The first is acceptable, as long as the writing shows the writer has an actual grasp of writing. The second is unforgiveable.

RC Writer Girl said...

I'm late to the party, I guess.

I'll add my two cents. I agree with the others who feel the query is too vague. It sounds like there could be great stuff in the novel. It's just not fleshed out in the query.

Focusing on Raj and his medical school history, is backstory. I think what you're trying to get at is something like this: Raj is not confident in his ability to heal the sick, but he knows for sure he can uphold the basic ethical tenets the profession requires. That is, until he discovers one of his patients deliberately infected his girlfriend with DISEASE.

Your query needs to focus on the real payoff of your novel: what happens when a professional (lawyer/doctor) disregards ethical tenets to make a bad person pay. It's a fun issue, with great payoff when done well.

But, your query spends too long focusing on Raj and his lack of confidence and finding the girlfriend and all those things.

Go back and focus on those more emotional/conflict aspects of your novel. That will create a better query.

Lastly, I disagree with the person who said you have to establish yourself or your character as an expert doctor. The best books are often about novices who catch onto something the so-called experts miss.

And I also think you should leave your journal credentials in. Even though it's not fiction writing, it shows you are able to meet deadlines, basic writing standards and work with an editor. Those are all good things, and worth saying.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Lastly, I disagree with the person who said you have to establish yourself or your character as an expert doctor.

No person said that.

gj said...

I kind of said the thing about establishing medical expertise, and I stand by it. I didn't mean super-expertise, just that for a medical thriller, the reader is going to expect some real insight into medical issues.

I heard Tess Gerritsen speak once, and as I recall the anecdote, she mentioned that when she was switching from romance to medical thrillers, she had someone (an agent, perhaps?) comment that her manuscript's premise sounded really good, but that medical thrillers were a hard sell unless the author was a doctor. "Um," said Tess, "I AM a doctor." And the rest is history.

The posted query here SAYS that the author is a doctor, but it doesn't FEEL like the author is a doctor. The disease is vague, the problems are vague, the medical practice is vague. Nothing that a non-doctor couldn't write.

For a medical thriller, the author needs to EXUDE medical expertise, not just hang the M.D. after his name.

Anonymous said...

Thank you all for the constructive comments. Writing a query is certainly a difficult task. I'll take them all into account as I work on a revised version.