Sunday, April 22, 2018


Question: I describe Woman in the Wind as a literary crime novel but am unsure. It’s certainly not a straight crime novel because while the story hinges on criminal acts, it's the story of a quest that involves a woman's awakening to her own potential for work and love. This probably isn’t the most sea-shaking question I could ask Query Shark, but do the themes and some non-traditional characters mean I’m calling it by the right term?

Dear QueryShark:

A jaded Iris Clark doesn’t expect much when she returns to her Texas hometown to help her mother, but deep down, she hopes for renewal. Trouble is, Stillwell’s not that kind of place. It’s the kind of place where a woman can disappear for no good reason and plenty of bad ones.

Iris runs head on into that hard reality when a white-girl DUI lands her in county jail, where she finds casual assaults and oppression to be the norm, and Lea, the unstable young African-American student who’s her cellmate, to be flat-out delusional. Once home, Iris discovers that when Lea was released, she was dumped out of the jail on the Sabinal Canyon Road at midnight—no ride, no phone—and seen no more.

At this point, my fingers are crossed that this query will not implode. I'm interested in what happens next.

Lea’s mother Roberta discovers that nobody except Iris will listen, and so the two of them join forces and start asking questions. They meet with indifference and hostility, but Iris’s twenty years in LA has erased her small-town caution. Using old money connections, she expands the search and manages to grab some media attention. When she is run off the road and nearly killed, it seems obvious that she is onto something.

Iris comes back strong, but Roberta fades, overcome by despair and a traumatic personal history. Iris cultivates an eclectic crew—the crackpot millionaire she knew as a child, her mother’s gay caregiver, a freelance detective who mentors her, and a fearless new friend. Tomás soon becomes more than a friend, which also makes him more of a target, but when he is arrested, beaten and jailed with gang members, he gains new intel that helps Iris untangle the stories of missing women. Despite warnings, Iris goes it alone and in a fight for her life, finds help from a surprising ally.

And this is all just too much. The abstract "traumatic personal history" isn't specific enough to be interesting. The eclectic crew isn't deftly drawn enough to be anything other than a string of adjectives.

There's nothing we need here in terms of plot.

I'll keep reading but the momentum is dropping.

Revelations of murder and corruption crack open the sealed world of Stillwell, but Iris and Tomas see hope in a future there and commit to a life together along the Sabinal River.

If this is the end of the novel, the first thing to remember is you don't talk about the entire novel in a query. That's what a synopsis is for.

You would have been better off to stop at the end of paragraph 3.

Woman in the Wind is a literary crime novel complete at 76,000 words. As director of Texas Jail Project, I hear the stories of women who survive the brutality of the criminal justice system and of the ones who don’t, including the model for Lea who died in a California canyon after being released from a local jail. I’m 140 pages into another novel about Iris, relocated to a Rio Grande border town where she joins a diverse band of locals battling a powerful coal-mining company. 

Don't spend time in this query talking about the next book.

And 76,000 words seems very very short if you're talking about a taut suspense novel. In other words, do you have enough story here?

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

None of the problems in this query would keep me from reading pages, but it could certainly be tightened up by focusing ONLY on the precipitating incident and then what's at stake for Iris. We really don't have any sense of that here.

You can tank that first pages opportunity if you open with someone waking up, driving, getting a phone call, or doing any of the other gazillion things writers like to do before getting to something interesting.

It's ok to write all that stuff, but when you're revising the big question to ask yourself: is something changing for my main character yet?  Don't make me read 20 pages to get to that point.

As for your question: any crime novel, whether literary or not, requires that the plot hinge on a crime of some sort, and the resolution of the plot be the resolution of the crime. In other words, Romeo and Juliet isn't a crime novel (ok, play) because the resolution of the plot isn't the resolution of the crime (which is Romeo killing Tybalt.)

 Whether this is a literary crime novel, I don't know. I'd have to read the novel.

What I do know is this is NOT a quest novel which generally require an actual journey of some sort from innocence to maturity.

This doesn't feel like women's fiction because there's not a strong enough sense of Iris growing as a person.

And it's certainly not a romance because the romance isn't the centerpiece of the book.

I hope it's literary crime or suspense, because that's what I'm looking for.

The problem with not knowing if it's a crime novel (or any other specific genre) is that if you tell me it's literary crime, and the book doesn't adhere to the requirements of the genre, I'll be frustrated and confused. That's not not not your goal!

Sunday, April 15, 2018


The pivotal scene in my manuscript is the rape of the main character. My last beta reader said she had nightmares for two days about the story and I should be upfront regarding the violent aspects of the plot. Should I be direct about this in the query letter? Does it matter to agents?

Dear Query Shark:

For college freshman Maggie Coinin, befriending shy Brian Chasseur didn’t seem significant, but now he’s following her around like a lost dog. She thinks he has a harmless crush. She couldn’t be more wrong.

This is a nice start. There's an immediate sense that something is about to happen.

Maggie isn’t aware that Brian lives in a medicated haze to quell his violent outbursts. Knowing his rage can’t get the better of him again, he’s hidden a gun and a single bullet in his dorm room.

I don't understand the purpose of this paragraph. You're repeating the sense of impending doom from the previous paragraph. That undercuts the power of the first paragraph. The second paragraph should move us forward, not repeat what we already know or elaborate on the elements of "more wrong." You can take this whole thing out and not lose any of the plot.

 You've also got both points of view: Maggie's in the first sentence and Brian's in the second sentence.  That's REALLY confusing.

After Maggie rejects Brian’s advances, he ditches his medication to let the real Brian come out. As far as he’s concerned, their fates are intertwined, and she must realize that they belong together. But when stalking her isn’t enough to satisfy his desire, Brian takes what he wants.

I'd stop reading right here, and pass as fast as I could.  Right now, this book seems to be about a violent man who stalks a woman, and frankly, I have zero interest in reading that. 

Maggie is a cipher right now, seen only as the object of Brian's attention. We don't know anything about her, what she wants, what's keeping her from getting it. We have no reason to care about her.

If there's one thing readers have stopped buying it's books where women are merely objects. 

Years in prison have given Brian time to think about Maggie’s sins. Not only has she stolen a part of his life, she murdered their child. Now that he’s free, he’s tracked Maggie to Chicago and is looking to settle the score.

Wait, what?? I thought they were in college?
And dear god, if "she murdered their child" means Maggie had an abortion after conceiving from a rape, I'm glad I stopped reading before this. 

Maggie is an object, and Brian is a violent rapist. Which character did you think your reader would be interested in? 

Sensing Brian’s return, Maggie has cloistered herself from the world. But when Jude O'Connell walks into her life, she rethinks her solitude. Their growing relationship helps Maggie rediscover her inner strength to confront her past. But as she lets down her guard for Jude, Brian closes in.

Maggie needs to buy a damn stun gun. 

Because we have no idea of what has happened to Maggie in these intervening years, we have no idea what she needs, or wants.  That means the reader fills in what they want her to do (ie the stun gun above), and when your reader starts rewriting your book at the query stage, it's a bad bad sign.

From what you write here Brian is the character driving the plot. He's forcing the changes in Maggie's life. Both a protagonist and an antagonist must have something a reader responds to in a positive way. Neither has to be likable, not at all, but both must be compelling. Right now Brian is not that. He's repellent. This is a problem of the novel, not the query.

My debut novel, THE SLEEP OF REASON, is a complete upmarket fiction manuscript at 88,000-words. The novel is told from Brian’s and Maggie’s points of view. The target audience is women ages twenty-five to forty-five, who enjoyed The Couple Next Door, The Weight of Lies, and Gone Girl.

Here's the description of The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena:
Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all—a loving relationship, a wonderful home, and their beautiful baby, Cora. But one night, when they are at a dinner party next door, a terrible crime is committed. Suspicion immediately lands on the parents. But the truth is a much more complicated story.

Inside the curtained house, an unsettling account of what actually happened unfolds. Detective Rasbach knows that the panicked couple is hiding something. Both Anne and Marco soon discover that the other is keeping secrets, secrets they've kept for years.

What follows is the nerve-racking unraveling of a family—a chilling tale of  deception, duplicity, and unfaithfulness that will keep you breathless until the final shocking twist.

We see Anne and Marco suddenly suspected of a crime. We instantly care about them because we think this suspicion is unfair.  

We know more about Anne and Marco in that first sentence than we do about Maggie in your entire query, and it sets up the reader to care about them. 

And there is NO hint of violence, or mental illness or stalking in this description.

Here's the description for The Weight of Lies by Emily Carpenter
Reformed party girl Meg Ashley leads a life of privilege, thanks to a bestselling horror novel her mother wrote decades ago. But Meg knows that the glow of their very public life hides a darker reality of lies, manipulation, and the heartbreak of her own solitary childhood. Desperate to break free of her mother, Meg accepts a proposal to write a scandalous, tell-all memoir.

Digging into the past—and her mother’s cult classic—draws Meg to Bonny Island, Georgia, and an unusual woman said to be the inspiration for the book. At first island life seems idyllic, but as Meg starts to ask tough questions, disturbing revelations come to light…including some about her mother.

Soon Meg’s search leads her to question the facts of a decades-old murder. She’s warned to leave it alone, but as the lies pile up, Meg knows she’s getting close to finding a murderer. When her own life is threatened, Meg realizes the darkness found in her mother’s book is nothing compared to the chilling truth that lurks off the page.
Again, we know a lot more about Meg in that first sentence than we do about your Maggie. And there doesn't seem to be some sort of violent rapist on the first page here. 

Gone Girl isn't a good comp for anyone any more. It was a runaway success which we all hope for, but is damn hard to replicate. And unless you've got some sort of twist ending here, the only similarity I see is the alternating point of view.

One thing you did well was choosing the first two comps-they're current (both pubbed in 2017.) Comps need to be as current as possible, and generally no more than two or three years old.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The problem here are your characters.
I don't care about Maggie other than in a very abstract way, which is death in a query. I'm repelled by Brian's action, and he seems to be in the grip of mental illness, thus not evil by choice.

An antagonist who does evil because he is mentally ill isn't interesting. He's not in control; he's not choosing to do bad things.

To answer your question: the rating system for movies that says "graphic content" or "some nudity" is intended to help parents screen movies for their children. Your book isn't intended for children. Thus you don't need a warning sign on it.

However.  Graphic rape scenes are a HUGE turn  off for me as a reader. Graphic violence of any kind, really.  It's one thing to know something bad happened, even something really bad. It's another thing to read every last detail as it's happening.

Remember too, graphic does not always equal frightening. The scariest movies are the ones where you don't know what's out there, not those with  some monster tearing someone limb from limb. Those blood-fests often become ludicrous, not scary.  The master of suspense (Hitchcock!) let you scare yourself. 

And frankly, if you just tell me there are graphic rape scenes in the query, I'm much MUCH more likely to pass. You're telling me about something I don't want to read about, and without any context, and absent the framework of a story where I care what happens to the characters.  It's as if you told me you're going to poke me with a sharp object.  My instant reaction is "no you are not, and get out of here" as I reach for my stun gun.  But, if you ask to poke me with a needle to inoculate me against the flu, I not only say yes, I give you $20 to do so.  Context.

I think your query has revealed some fundamental problems with your novel. However, if you just chose the wrong way to describe the characters here, revise and resend.

Sunday, April 8, 2018


Dear QueryShark,

This is not Hallie's bed.
She has never been to this house.
The diamond ring on her left hand does not belong to her.

The only explanation would be a dangerous one, except the woman smiling in the wedding photo looks exactly like her. And the man she just hit in the head with a shoe is claiming to be her husband. When her father, who has been dead ten years, and her mother, a mentally unstable shut-in, reappear in this life whole, happy, and alive, Hallie is forced to face this strange new reality.

She really is married to Quinton Burg.
She never moved to Chicago to be an artist.
She may be on the road to hysteria.

Doctors find nothing wrong, no physical reason for the replacement of memories that has ripped her from a newfound life and dumped her back in her small hometown. Her father's strange behavior toward the memory loss leads Hallie to suspect he has the answers no doctor can give. If she learns his secrets, this new life she has come to accept could disappear like a fading dream.

But if she trusts him, there may be no old life to return to.

THE DIVIDERS is an 80,000-word thriller. Thank you for your time and consideration

This isn't a thriller. My best guess, not having read the pages, is that it's suspense and, most likely domestic suspense. That's not only not a deal breaker it's a big bonus.  Thrillers are harder to sell than domestic suspense these days.

And this is why you put the category at the close of the query, not at the start. An agent looking for domestic suspense might not stop to think "oh hey, she might have the category wrong here." The agent sees thriller, thinks "oh crap not another thriller" and slides right by.


If this query isn't getting results it's cause the pages don't hold up.  The query is terrific. It's got voice. It's got rhythm. There are no wasted words, or drawn out explanations.

The VERY interesting omission is comps. That's an entirely valid choice and can work in an author's favor.  The first thing I thought of here was the riveting movie Get Out which still haunts me. (Go see it!)  Sometimes letting the agent realize things on their own is pretty smart. It's a risk, but a smart one.

Saturday, March 31, 2018


Dear QueryShark:
Thirty-nine-year-old Chicago strip club bartender and part-time tattoo artist, Jesse Chasen, is the whip-smart black sheep of her family. She’s cute, but an aging-tough-girl, you-wouldn’t-hire-her-to-babysit-your-kids kind of way. Like if Joan Jett and Reese Witherspoon had a lovechild.

This is a classic mistake in a query. You think telling me what she looks like is telling me about her. It's not.Nothing here tells me what she values, what she wants, what she cares about.

And strip clubs of any kind in the first sentence of a query is a big turn off. I don't want to read books about strip clubs, or people who work in them.  That might just be me, of course, but the days of Mickey Spillane are pretty much over.

After quitting her job then stealing the dog of her (newly-ex) boyfriend/boss, Jesse shows up on the doorstep of her estranged, emotionally repressed older sister, Jennifer McMahon, a doctor’s wife who lives a Brady-Bunch-on-steroids existence in the perfectly manicured suburb of Glenview.

Why? The reason is the first sentence of the NEXT paragraph (the call from the lawyer.)  That information needs to go BEFORE we hear she quits her job and steals a dog (which seems weird when it's out of context.)

They received a call from a lawyer that morning about the death of their birth mother. The catch is, they didn’t know they had a “birth mother”. To collect the inheritance, they’re forced on a journey together through the Deep South to piece together their mom's story, told in flashbacks. The unusual terms of the will state that their trip must be completed in one week and all children must be present or the money is donated to charity.

Unusual terms? This kind of set up has been fodder for novels since Agatha Christie invented Hercule Poirot.  And journey/quest/discover stories are as old as Chaucer.  It might be unusual for your characters, but for your readers, this isn't anything new. 

Which is not to say it's a poor choice, it's not. It's just not what you want to focus on in your query. Yes it's a quest novel. Show me what you did here that's new, fresh, a twist on the tales we've heard earlier. Show me how your novel contributes to and BUILDS ON the quest novel category. Otherwise it's same  old same old, and I'm not so interested in that.

Also you squandered a lot of your reader's enthusiasm with that description of Jesse, when it turns out the strip club and tattoo thing don't have much to do with the plot at all.

Focus on what's important: Sisters Jesse and Jennifer get a call from a lawyer about the death of their birth mother. The catch is, they didn't know they had one.

Yeah, it’s a Dead-Mom Scavenger Hunt.

Their journey through the other Land Down Under leads them to an ex-military Drag Queen brother with mild PTSD who performs in New Orleans as Jackie Oh! After he refuses to join them, they kidnap him at gunpoint (of course). Sure, it’s just a crappy, plastic reproduction of a Civil War revolver they found in a Bourbon St. tourist shop, but he doesn’t discover that until they’re halfway to Bayou Lafourche in Thibodaux, LA.

There's no plot here. There's nothing at stake. You're describing people and events. That's not the same as plot.

The rest of their story includes a circus; a murder; human-eating alligators; an eighty-nine-year-old narcoleptic juke joint owner in Alabama; a trucker with a penchant for TV theme songs from the 70’s, and his bloodhound Ronald Reagan; and Dead-Circus-Mom’s marriage to a wealthy, gay Savannah man twice her age. Then it’s all turned on its head at their final stop.

A coming-of-age story sometimes doesn’t happen until later in life. Then it’s about Second Chances, and about finding the people you choose to call family.

Yeah. And alligators…
Which is a funny line, and I'm totally in favor of having alligators in every book (Snappsy Forever!) but it's not as funny as it could be if you didn't mention alligators in line one of the paragraph starting "the rest of their story."

I think this book will appeal to someone who'd enjoy watching a Sue Monk Kidd family move into a Carl Hiason neighborhood. My manuscript is complete at 53,000 words.

Carl Hiaasen.
You've committed one of my all time biggest snarly prickle puss offenses by misspelling the name of the author you're using as a comp. It's REALLy easy to do, especially with a name like Hiaasen.  But you solve this problem by spell czeching every name. Every time. I feel your pain, I have a client with a name I need to verify Every Single Time, and yes, I've caught mistakes. She's got a double ff instead of a ph, and I always forget how many e's (three, in case you're wondering!)

If I see this in a query, it's not a deal breaker. It is however one less reason to say yes if I'm wavering, and that's NOT what you want.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The big problem here is there is no plot.
Colorful characters doing crazy things does not a plot make. This is not a plot driven novel (it's character driven) but you MUST have a plot here or there's no tension, and no narrative arc.

Plot is essential because it's the reason we care about what happens to the characters. Without a challenge (or having something at stake) there's no conflict. Without conflict, it's hard to care what happens. No plot is like a football game that doesn't keep score.  (I had to revise that from "no score" because yes, dear readers, I did attend a  football game where the score was 0-0 at the end of the 4th quarter. Of course it was raining.)

Go back and read Carl Hiaasen to see what his plots are. I'm a big fan of his novel Strip Tease.

Sunday, March 25, 2018


Questions: I’ve read through the other blogs and did my best, but I feel like I’m having trouble picking and choosing what parts to keep and what to cut. I’ve seen your amazing and sometimes painful advice, and I say go ahead, “bite me”. Which pieces aren’t absolutely necessary? I’m also worried that it’s too dark for middle grade. It just feels like there’s something obvious that is going right over my head.

Dear Query Shark,

Humans are evil and that’s a fact.

Yikes! You do know that everyone (well, except for me!) who reads this is human, right? Also, 'humans' is abstract rather than specific. Thus it slaps us across the face but doesn't really tell us anything. In other words, not an effective opening line.

Or at least, that’s what Star, or Stardancer if you want to get technical, believes. Anyone who had heard the horror stories would think the same. Granted, Star is a hybrid, making her part human. But the wolf DNA in her genome separates her from them. She has no problem leveling her arrow at a human.

There are a lot of goods reasons you should start with the main character. That it is specific right away is just one of them.

Consider: Star has no problem leveling her arrow at a human. Granted, she's a hybrid -part human- but she's heard the horror stories. Aren't all humans evil?

The hybrids of the Tribe have called the planet Nema home for almost a century. Star herself is thriving, happily following in her father’s pawprints. The humans that created the hybrids haven’t been seen in a hundred years, withdrawing far away to their polluted Planet Earth. And that’s where Star likes them.

If they haven't been seen in hundreds of years, how does she know she'd have no trouble pointing her arrow at one?

But all good things must come to an end.

Star’s world is rocked with the arrival of a human colony that threatens the peace. arrives.

You don't need both "all good things come to an end" and "Star's world is rocked etc."  While those sentences don't mean the same thing, they convey the same moment in the story, that is things are now going to change.

Also, withdrawing is the wrong word here. Withdrawing conveys that the process is still ongoing (ie happening now), but we know humans haven't been seen in  a hundred years. Thus they have withdrawn to their polluted planet.  This is the kind of writing that gives me pause because it means you're not fully in command of your craft yet. 

Fueled by her hatred, Star rallies with the rest of her people against the invaders. But upon meeting a young human named Cassy, who obliterates every preconception Star had, the truths she’d known her whole life are challenged. She can’t tell up from down anymore, much less good from bad.

And here you are, back to abstract generalities: obliterates every preconception; tell up from down.

What specifically happens? Cassy isn't evil. How does Star find out? ONE well chosen instance.

But what Star sees now is just the tip of a massive darkness. The colony masquerades for a larger plan. A true evil, which threatens everything Star fights for, bares its teeth hungrily, ready to pounce. And the struggle that unfolds will force Star to choose; abandon her beliefs or die.

And more generalities. "Run! Run! The world is ending" isn't anywhere near as frightening as "I have a gun pointed at your head." In a query, a pointed gun is what you need, not a general call to alarm for every Middlesex village and farm...

oh wait, I digress. That's from Paul Revere's Ride. "The British are coming, the British are coming" is pretty effective of course, but it depends on knowing what those Brits were up to.  We don't have any clue what the Larger Plan, True Evil is up to. Keep the stakes as personal and real as you can.

EYE OF THE STAR is a high action, plot driven novel designed for middle grade readers that mixes elements from past, present, and future.


This doesn't feel at all like a middle grade book to me. For starters the stakes are way too abstract. A middle grade audience is middle schoolers and younger. For those readers, things have to feel real, and to feel real they MUST be personal.

Also middle grade books generally have very young characters. You don't mention any ages here and when I got this I assumed teen age or up for all the characters.

At 50,000 words, this novel this novel sees mankind through the eyes of something no longer human, as she discovers that the world, no, the universe, is not so black and white.

Your sentence structure conveys that this novel discovers the world. She (a pronoun) refers to the preceding noun (in this case this novel).  Again, this kind of writing says you're not yet in command of your craft. 

And repeating "this novel" is such sloppy proofreading that I actually went back to your original email to make sure I did not copy and paste incorrectly.

I don't say this to shame you; my daily blog has at least one typo a day, and there are readers who have fun finding them and letting me know.  BUT your query must rise to a higher standard than daily shark yammering. Your query tells me not just about the story, but about how meticulous you are about your writing.

 This kind of error tells me I'll find more of the same in your book, and more than anything else, that's why I'd say no to this.  I can't read a novel that needs copy editing. Developmental editing sure, but NOT copy editing.

Thank you for your consideration.

You've got a couple big problems here. The biggest one is that I think you need more writing time. You learn to revise by writing and revising. And not by revising the same novel over  and over. You need fresh material to revise. 

I think you might need to read more middle grade. If you haven't read more than 100 middle grade books you haven't read enough. And by read, I do NOT mean just read for fun. Read to see how other authors address the problems you have here (abstract stakes; character ages, etc.)

Read both really good books (those that get awards and Best of Year selections) but also read books that are popular. Those aren't often the same thing.

You don't mention if you're a member of the Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators.  If you're writing middle grade, membership isn't an option. It's a requirement. It's a group of people who have successfully done what you're trying to do and learning from them has lower stakes than starting to query and getting a face full of rejection.

Here's the link for them.   

One very good thing is your initial question. You knew this query wasn't working. You weren't sure why but you did know. That bodes well for you.

The problem isn't your query. Time for a pause, a stretch of reading/writing/reworking.

Sunday, March 18, 2018


Dear Query Shark:

Twenty-eight-year-old Verity Hearst fears being single forever, but solitude isn't so bad, not with a loaded Springfield 1911-A1 pistol and a warm cup of tea to keep her company. She has killed over eighty criminals as one of the world's elite assassins. It's a reputation she has proudly earned alone.

When I see the name Verity, my mind instantly turns to Code Name Verity, a darn good book published a couple years back. Sort of like any character named Ishmael makes me think of that book about the whale.  If you want me to think of Code Name Verity, you have. If you don't, you might think about the names you choose.

And any woman who thinks a warm cup of tea is good company sounds like an idiot. If you're trying for light hearted, you've missed the mark. Books, a cat, even a daily soap opera would be less frothy.

Verity's manager Enoch is her only link to the mysterious company she works for. When he tells her she'll have a male partner on the biggest assignment of her life, taking out three men at the head of a billion-dollar human and drug trafficking operation, she wonders if her employer is doubting her abilities. All she knows is she must maintain her reputation, or die trying.

Really? Why? She's earned her reputation (paragraph one) but we have no sense that it's her entire sense of self-worth (die trying.)

This is hyperbole, and it's death in a suspense novel. A suspense novel is a very delicate creation that must hold our attention, suspend our disbelief and make sense. It's a hat trick of a novel, and a writer can't miss a step, or it will all come crashing down.

Verity's new partner Cy thinks he's the world's greatest assassin. He knows more than she does about everything, including how to pour a cup of tea properly. Doing her job with this smartass doubting her every move is going to be a lot harder than she imagined.

This is so jarring I'm sort of dumbfounded. Up until now we've had a lady assassin with a tea fetish who takes her work too seriously, now we have some guy who's a smart ass.  The tone went from serious (if over wrought) to smartass.  My head is spinning.

And I've stopped reading.
This is where I hit "thanks but no thanks."  

For starters there's not a hint of plot. What does Verity want? What does she care about? What's keeping her from getting what she wants? 

What does the antagonist want? Who IS the antagonist? What does the antagonist care about? (For an exquisite portrayal of an antagonist look no further than Omar in Season One of the The Wire.)

There's no reason to care about Verity at all. Cy is literally one dimension. No one is enticing.

KILLER IN HEELS is a 70,000-word novel of suspense.
There's no suspense.

I would say I have experience as an assassin, but that might get me in trouble.
This is the best line of the query.

I chose to contact you because you are looking for female-centric thrillers.
A novel of suspense is not a thriller, neither is a comic crime novel. You're telling me I can have a cookie cause I like cake. Both are good, but they're not the same thing.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

I'm not sure if you're writing suspense or a comic crime novel here. It's seems more comic than suspenseful right now.

There's no plot, and the characters seem artificial.

I'm not sure if that's a problem with the query, or the novel. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018


a. word count: 62,000
b. title: COPY PASTE
c. contact info:

Why you put this at the top of your query letter I do not know. It goes at the bottom, and not in bullet point form.


And this goes under your closing.  

Another gunshot, another day for Chicago police detective Lauren Medina—until a murder investigation leads not to a street gang scuffle but a supernatural pact for the soul of the city and its youth. All of them.

This is so abstract it's not very interesting. That's death in a query. It's instant death after you put all your contact info and housekeeping stuff at the top of the query, because at this point I assume you haven't done a lick of research on how to query.  

When you query an agent you're saying you're ready to suit up and work in a new industry.  You want the agent to take you seriously, to believe you've done your homework and prepared for the "job interview" of a query.  To that end you've researched correct query format, and the PURPOSE of a query which is to -- all together now -- entice an agent to read your work.

Because you're smart you understand that enticing is not even close to uninteresting. You read your first paragraph and think, "would I want to read this if I hadn't written it."  You might even show this to a writer friend.  If the response is anything other than "hey, I want to read this!" you know you're not there yet.

You're not there yet.

When Medina arrests two teens for the attempted murder of a classmate, she’s not surprised by their crime or even their strange behavior, but the odd graffiti that starts showing up at murder scenes around town—signed by the Pied Piper.

Those two parts of the sentence don't seem connected. She arrests two teens. Is there graffiti at that murder scene?  If there is, Medina notices it there, not "around town."

This leads Medina away from the usual suspects and toward a dark tale come to life. If she can’t save the kids of Chicago from sacrificing each other at the Pied Piper’s delight in exchange for their own deepest desires, she’ll have to make a pact with the demon herself to save the one young man she won’t let the Pied Piper take.

How is she led away from the usual suspects (which doesn't mean what you're using it here for) if she has two suspects in custody?  How is "a dark tale come to life" a suspect? 

And this is where I stop reading. It's entirely abstract and cliche. "Deepest desires" "pact with the demon" are all overused and under enticing.

Specificity is your friend. What is the Pied Piper doing? Why are the kids following him? How do the murders fit in with this?

Copy Paste is complete at 62,000 words. It’s an adult horror novel based on the Brother's Grimm tale.

If this is based on the Grimm tale, where are the rats? They don't have to be actual rats, but something brings the Pied Piper to Hamelin, and in your story, I don't have any idea what it is, or how Medina is part of it.  The Grimm tale is about people failing to honor their obligations. I don't get any sense of that here.  

When you base something on earlier work, you don't have to slavishly follow the plot of the original work, but the theme (which you should NOT mention in a query!) should be similar. 

The plot of Beowulf and  First Blood by David Morell are not similar,  but the theme is. You need to show me the theme of this book is close to the original tale and you do that by telling me about the plot. Tricky, right?  

This query doesn't do the job right now.
Go back to the basics.
Who is the main character. What does she want. What's keeping her from getting it? What will she have to sacrifice/how will she have to change to get what she wants.

For those of you who noticed the word count and wonder if it's low: it's not. Horror is generally shorter than other kinds of novels.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

#299-Revised once

Dear Query Shark,

Niall Lewis is in the high school of his dreams. His classes utilize the world’s most advanced virtual reality systems—for true hands-on learning. Everything is perfect until a deleterious glitch impacts his scores.

 This just isn't punchy enough to grab my attention. You're telling me half of what happened: a glitch affects his scores. How, and why should I care? A glitch that drops .01 from his GPA doesn't seem too terrible, unless that .01 is a matter of life and death.

Though he works hard, Niall consistently receives lower grades than his peers; so low that he risks expulsion in a school that demands student excellence. When Niall seeks help, he becomes aware the glitch is no accident and that he faces dire consequences unless he remains silent.

So far we've got failing grades and being tossed out of school. This just isn't enough to carry a plot.
Get to what the dire consequences are, and you'll need to be specific here, to get and keep a reader's attention. 

You seem to be avoiding the obvious: someone wants Niall gone. Why? 

Niall keeps silent and does the work of two people just to stay enrolled. He sacrifices his relationship, friendships, family, and sleep for passing scores while continually questioning if his dream is worth it.

What dream?
At this point I've stopped reading because you're not talking about a book that sounds enticing. 

Struggling to maintain his silence, Niall reaches a breaking point and speaks out. Barely avoiding expulsion, a series of events leads him to a secret file that not only explains the glitch but also uncovers a neurological program capable of nefarious motives for his school and the world.

You're too far in to the book at this point. A query should be about the first act, not the climax of the book. 

And "a neurological program capable of nefarious motives for his school and the world." is mind bogglingly confusing.

To rescue the students from the brainwashing, Niall must take matters into his own hands. He devises a plan to keep his place at the school and stop the mastermind behind the insidious scheme.
When his plan fails, he learns he must choose either the easiest path or the road less traveled.

Again, this is the climax of the book.

SILENT GOLDEN EAGLE is an 84,000 word YA novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is still too abstract to be interesting.
Your main character has to want something. It sounds here like Niall wants to stay in this school. Why? 

Sometimes it's clear why a protagonist wants something. Here it's not. What's so special about this school? Why is he so dead set on staying here?  And why does someone want him gone?

Those answers need to be clear, and specific in this query.

Question: I know the first four words are a mouthful to describe my protagonist, but I don’t want to explain the eight different cohorts with unnecessary backstory. I mention Golden Eagle cohort solely to help explain the title. Is it worth mentioning?

Dear Query Shark,

Golden Eagle cohort freshman Niall Lewis is in the high school of his dreams until a glitch in his first virtual reality class threatens everything he has earned. The glitch prevents him from receiving the high ranks necessary to stay enrolled and when he tries to get help from the school he is warned to keep silent or be expelled.

By ranks do you mean grades or marks? Even if you use ranks in the book it will help you here to use grades or marks because your reader will know what you mean without having to stop and think about it. Ranking and ranks mean different things, and I paused at "ranks" to make sure I understood what you meant. That is NOT something you want me doing here.

Niall chooses to keep silent because going home means failure. Things only get worse when he is accused of cheating in a league quest. Niall’s league rank suffers even though he is cleared when an equipment malfunction is found.

And here you use rank in what seems like a different way than you use it above. I'm following what you're talking about but my confidence in the clarity of your writing is taking a beating. Again, NOT what you want.

Exhausted from doing the work of two people just to stay enrolled, helping his league move back up in the ranking, being taunted by rival league bullies, and under pressure from his family, he finally breaks his silence. Barely avoiding expulsion, a series of events leads to the discovery of a secret file on a terminated neurological program that explains the origination of his glitch. In the wrong hands, this hidden technology could have nefarious consequences for the world.

Where did this "work of two people" come from?
You're using league here in a way that is different to my eye from the precediing paragraph.

I'm all in favor of nefarious consequences, but honestly, they have to be consequences for Niall to count as what's at stake here.

Knowing that exposing the glitch is no longer just about rank or enrollment, Niall must take matters into his own hands. With no one willing to listen, he devises a plan to keep his place at the school, help his friends, and stop the mastermind behind the insidious scheme.

Insididious schemes are even better than nefarioius consequences! These are the only phrases with zip and vitality. The rest feels mushy.

SILENT GOLDEN EAGLE is an 83,000 word YA novel with sci-fi fantasy elements.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

To answer your question: you don't need to use anything in the query that will explain the title. We're used to not knowing what a title means until we're knee-deep in the book.

But the problem here isn't how you describe Niall, or the title. The problem is there's nothing at stake for Niall, and I'm pretty confused about what's going on.  

If you find yourself needing a paragraph to exlain a sentence, you've got the wrong sentence.

Revise, resend.

Sunday, February 11, 2018


Dear Query Shark:

The Three Little Pigs went out into the world to make their fortune--which proves that there is a fortune to be made in the world and you can make it (or blow it away) even if you're just a little pig.

Before you build your house of straw, read 101 Ways to Stay in Debt Forever.

If you have tried and failed to obtain a negative net worth, this book is guaranteed to help send your finances into an immediate downward spiral.

Don't learn how to cook. If you have life insurance, you don't need savings. And borrow a lot of money--that worked for Trump! Learn these and other great skills in 101 Ways to Stay in Debt Forever.

101 Ways to Stay in Debt Forever is complete at 75,000 words. Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is a textbook example of a query so confusing I don't even know if it's fiction or non-fiction. Your email to me you included a line above the salutation: 101 Ways to Stay in Debt Forever: Humorous Fiction, 75,000 words which I think you intended to be viewed as the subject line of the query email.

The problem with that is  this book isn't fiction as far as I can tell from this query.  There's no story.

It sounds more like a satirical self-help, but again, I'm just guessing.

When I rail against people trying to be clever in queries, this is exactly what I'm talking about.

PLAIN writing is a good start for any query. Tell me about the story if you're writing fiction.

If you're writing anything else, tell me the issue you're illuminating, the problem you're trying to solve, or the event/historical period you're shedding new light and insight on.

Don't outsmart yourself by trying to be clever.

Sunday, February 4, 2018


I am stuck, drowing in a pit of regretions. I have revised, read all your posts and done the dance. There has to be something I am missing. Is the title too strange? Is the story too broad? Do people not like time travel? SOS!

Dear QueryShark,

I’m seeking representation for my adult novel, JUMPING OFF THE timeLINE. Given your interests in innovative magic and dark humor, I think it would be a good fit for you. This speculative fiction novel, complete at 89,000 words, explores a world where time is not only controlled, but wielded like magic. Once they jump, these humans can shift to any time period or age of their life.

All that intro and housekeeping stuff (word count, category, compliments) goes at the end.

One of these is Lark Robles, a twenty-five, okay fine, twenty-seven-year-old woman is dashing through the airport. But then she stops. In fact, time stops. Two mysterious women, both dressed like Woody Allen stars, step through the frozen airport and tell Lark the truth. She must choose between jumping off the timeline, or staying and dying in a tragedy. Time is only controlled by humans fated to die in a tragedy. If Lark jumps, she trades away her life, her family, her memories, and makes someone take her place on the destined plane.

Woody Allen stars? This doesn't evoke any image at all for me. And even if you replace "stars" with "characters" I still don't have an image. His movies are too idiosyncratic to have one type of star o character. [And honestly, Woody Allen? ewww.]

But most troublesome is that we have no sense of what's at stake. Sure Lark trades away her life, her family, her memories, but so what? Maybe she doesn't want any of those. And someone has to take her place? Does she get to choose who? If I got that offer, I'd want to choose who, and yes, I already have a list.

Lark says yes to train in the art of time and trades her bejeweled jean jacket for a fur coat. She rides water subways in 2071, gets drunk with Cleopatra, watches the final seconds of Miracle on Ice, and plays tag at Woodstock. When another controller of time decides Lark’s tragedy is perfect for her disastrous plan, Lark must relive the events she jumped from. But can she make the same decision again, and fully let go of her past on the line?

So, she gets to choose again. What's at stake this time? And what disastrous plan?

Also, not to be be nit picky but you've chosen pretty tame events here. You know where I'd want to be? Galilee for the Sermon on the Mount. London for the debut of Romeo and Juliet. Philadelphia in 1776. Seneca Falls in 1848. Gettysburg on November 9, 1863.

Lark's choice of events to attend, and what she does there (plays tag at Woodstock?) make her sound insubstantial, and worse, silly. Not someone I want to spend a couple hours with, even on a Friday night.

I have always been fascinated with time and knew that if we could travel, it would come with a cost. This novel is an exhilarating concoction of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Magicians. I am a Midwestern novelist, creator of the popular blog(redacted) and an environmental engineer. Thank you for your time and consideration.

I like the idea that time travel comes with a cost but concept isn't execution, and right now this query does not entice me to read the pages.

Get some stakes on the page, REAL stakes, and give Lark some substance. Even the frothiest chick lit novels had heroines who were interesting rather than silly.

To answer your specific questions:

Is the title too strange? No. And no one rejects a novel or query based solely on the title unless it's something truly offputting (like sex abuse references)

Is the story too broad? No. It's not substantive enough.

Do people not like time travel? Well, maybe, but that's not your problem here.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

#296-Revised once

Dear QueryShark:

Some thing is watching Earth and has been doing so since the dawn of civilization.

Alexander Price, commander of the first manned mission to Mars, spots a black-tentacled probe take off as he takes his first steps. No one else saw it and no one believes him.

Back on Earth, Alexander is outcast and mocked for his wild claims by NASA. During the day he obsesses about what aliens might be plotting and why NASA is hiding the data. Every night he dreams of fanged tentacles ripping him apart. 

 The way you're using outcast here is jarring. You probably mean shunned, or cast out. 
You're also missing the connective tissue between what he saw and why it's a "wild claim".  If he's the commander of the first manned mission to Mars, anything he sees wouldn't be a wild claim, cause no one's been there before to establish any other norm.

In other words,  if you're the first person to come to my house and you then tell people I have cats rollerskating through my kitchen, who's to say that's a wild claim; no one has been here before to establish the cat's mode of transport.

Determined to prove he isn’t crazy and find out the truth about the probe, he steals data from NASA, risking jail time and the little dignity he has left. Deep in the stolen data, he discovers aliens used the probe to watch him land on Mars and they live out in the Alpha Centauri system.

He blackmails his way onto an interstellar mission to Alpha Centauri, but by the time he gets there, eighty years would have passed on Earth. If he goes, he has to leave everything and everyone behind.

If he blackmails his way on to the mission, he's on the mission. When you follow up with "if he goes" he's NOT on the mission. In other words, these two sentences are in the wrong order.  

This is the kind of problem in a query that gives me real pause about requesting pages. If I see this kind of writing here, I'm confident I'll see it in your novel.  

The reason you slave over the writing in your query is to give me confidence you've slaved over the writing in your novel.   

The dark mystery he wants to solve on Alpha Centauri’s planets may provide personal redemption and vindication for abandoning his life on Earth. Or he may have pursued a ghost he only imagined in the numbers and on Mars. 

What dark mystery? This is too abstract to be interesting.

THE FINAL JUDGMENT is a 90,000-word SF novel with series potential. This first contact story will appeal to fans of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s, Children of Time and Emma Newman’s SF mystery, Planetfall.

This isn't specific enough to be interesting yet. First contact stories need to be about more than first contact.  You're building on and adding to the genre, not just retelling storylines we've heard before.

Consider the Amazon description of PlanetFall

Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.

More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony's 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.

Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.

The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart...

Can you see how the specifics used here make the novel enticing?

I drew on my experience working with narcissists-in-denial to create my characters. I’m a surgeon and use my scientific background to weave real science into stories.

I like the line about narcissists, but who's a narcissist in this story?

Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is a lot better than the initial query but it still doesn't give me a sense of what the story is really about.

I’ve worked and re-worked the pasted query below. It’s on the long side but I’m not sure what to cut.

Dear QueryShark:
Before Commander Alexander Price’s foot sinks into Martian soil, he spots a black-tentacled probe take off from the planet’s surface. Samantha and Harriet, the other two astronauts on the first manned mission to Mars, didn't see it, and no one back home believes him.

This  entire query clocks in at 339 words so it's not completely outside the ballpark for word count.  That said, it can use some tightening. How do you tighten a query?

First, simple declarative sentences are your secret weapon.

Consider: Alexander Price, commander of the first manned mission to Mars, spots a a black-tentacled probe take off from the surface as he and the other two astronauts arrive. Neither of them see it . No one believes him.

44 to 39 words. Not much BUT you've tightened the narrative here in two ways. You've simplified the sentences and reduced the word count.

Alexander is ostracized and mocked for his wild claims by NASA but not Samantha, who carried his unconscious body through a storm on Mars, risking her own life because she loves him. During the day he obsesses about what aliens might be plotting and why NASA is hiding the data. Every night he dreams of fanged tentacles ripping him apart. He turns to Sam, and not drugs, to provide refuge from his nightly demons. 

He's not ostracized. Ostracized means to exclude someone. It's clear Samantha isn't excluding him.

You're also awash in details. Too many details overwhelm the query.What do we need to know here?
We need to know that NASA mocks him. That's ALL we need to know.

74 words down to 11.

Determined to prove he isn’t crazy and find out the truth, he steals data from NASA’s new administrator, Harriet, risking jail time and the little dignity he has left.

Unless Harriet is on Mars, you've got a location problem here. When last we saw Alex, he was on Mars.

Did you notice that you use the full name  of your main character, the man, but only first names for the lady characters? In case you're wondering, that's something I notice, and draw conclusions about. Those conclusions are not in your favor.

NASA's data show some thing is watching Earth, and it lives in the Alpha Centauri system. Harriet realises the implications of the data, forgives Alexander and asks him to join her on an interstellar mission. By the time he gets there, eighty years would have passed on Earth. Samantha, the love of his life, will be long dead.

Here's where I stop reading. The logic of this plot eludes me. 
What does the black-tentacled probe on Mars have to do with anything here?
Why is Harriet in possession of data that only one man seems able to interpret. From what I know about NASA, there are some pretty smart people working there, and it boggles my mind to imagine that anyone would have data that no one else has seen. NASA is not a solitary sport.

Why would the administrator of NASA be on an interstellar flight at all? Isn't that why there are astronauts?

The folks who read science fiction are pretty picky about facts. They'll give you the big leap of imagination (interstellar flight for people is a reality) but the little facts (like how NASA works) have to be right.

The dark mystery he wants to solve on Alpha Centauri’s planets may provide personal redemption and vindication for abandoning Samantha. Or he may have pursued a ghost he only imagined in the stolen data.

This is the gist of the plot I think. What's the mystery on Alpha Centauri?

Also, "abandoning Samantha" makes me kind of crazy. If Alexander's job is being an astronaut, and he's asked to go on a mission, he's not abandoning Samantha, he's doing his job. Clearly there are some sacrifices (given she'll be dead when he comes back, IF he gets back) but it's not like he's leaving her for the lady next door.

THE FINAL JUDGMENT is a 90,000-word SF novel with series potential. This first contact story will appeal to fans of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s, Children of Time and Emma Newman’s SF mystery, Planetfall.

I drew on my experience working with narcissists-in-denial to create my characters.

This is the best line in the query and makes me think you probably have a pretty good sense of humor. 

I, on the other hand, am a down-to-Earth omnipotent surgeon. I use my scientific background to weave real science into stories.

(Insert personalisation for the agent)
Don't waste your time on trying to personalize queries. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Kind Regards,

The problem isn't word count. The problem is you haven't told me about the plot. You've told me about Alexander who seems entirely too drippy to be an astronaut.

It seems to me that the plot is what are those guys on Alpha Centauri up to, how do we find out, and do we need to interfere?

What you've got here is the set up, but not the plot.

In answer to your question, here's how to cut words from a query:

1. Use simple declarative sentences to build the foundation of your query.
2. Talk about the ONE thing we need to know about the book.
3. Add detail only when needed for clarity.

Sunday, January 21, 2018



1) This novel has a lot of action, but it's about the complications and mounting tension in the main character's life. You mention a thriller has larger stakes than one person's life, so how would you categorize this? Suspense?

2) The book has 3 acts with tension and stakes building. This query is about the final conflict. Is that okay?

3) I feel the current title would grab attention, but is it a bad idea to tip my hand? Other titles I've considered include DISARMING THE BEASTS, and PREDATOR'S TITHE.

4) While the protagonist is a woman, I don't consider this is chick lit. Cassie is an emotionally damaged, socially awkward Jason Bourne with a medical degree. Should I query chick lit agents or stick to thriller/suspense (or however you categorize this?)

Dear QueryShark:

Cassiopeia Gordon (Cassie) has spent 12 years trying to erase one night—not easy for someone with a photographic memory. When she was an 18-year-old virgin, her drill instructor savagely raped her.

One thing that just drives me bonkers is listing a character's name and then her (nickname) in parentheses. This is not a newspaper article or a police report. Call your character what you call her in the book: Cassie Gordon.

A close second on the bonkers list is putting a character's age in parens for the same reasons. You avoided that here, thankfully.

And I'm not sure why you mention her memory; it doesn't seem to be a plot point later on. And no one needs a photographic memory to have problems forgetting a savage rape. 

Determined she'll never be victimized again, Cassie has trained relentlessly in hand-to-hand combat, while becoming a trauma surgeon to repair bodily damage. Those skills and a facility for language have led her to join an elite Marine strike force where she proudly keeps her team members safe.

This is a total hodge podge of information. She's trained relentlessly so she'll never be a victim, and then becomes a trauma surgeon to repair bodily damage? Whose body? Trauma surgeons by definition are repairing damage. You don't need to say both things.

She's a member of an elite Marine strike force and a trauma surgeon? Really? Where did she find the time? Oh and she's got a facility for languages. And let's not forget the photographic memory.

You're making the classic mistake here of creating a caricature, not a character. A character's flaws are what make her interesting, not the fact that she's superwoman in camouflage scrubs.

A more interesting story is how someone who ISN'T Superwoman responds to an attack and seeks vengeance.

Now the CIA has recruited Cassie to join its operation. Onboarding will happen at headquarters near where Cassie's best friend lives. Not only is Melody the closest thing Cassie has to family, she's also the only person who really understands Cassie's past. A fellow victim of the serial rapist drill sergeant, Melody has channeled her experience into helping others as a rape counselor.

When a series of Melody's clients reveal their attackers admitted—even bragged about—the number of women they've raped, Melody can take no more. If the system won't stop these monsters, Melody decides she must.

Why won't the system stop these monsters? It's not as though rape is the unspoken-of crime it was 40 years ago. Women and men report rapes all the time. What makes these beyond the law?

Though equally sickened by the revelations, Cassie recognizes the dangers of Melody's plan and tries to dissuade her—unsuccessfully.

What's Melody's plan? Kill the rapists. I'm very much in favor of that. Slowly too. This is where the book would get much more interesting: how these lovely ladies take their revenge, and what it costs them (ie what's at stake for them.)  You can't brutalize the brutalizer without being yourself becoming a brutalizer. 

If Cassie doesn't act, the only sister she's ever had could be imprisoned for the rest of her life. To save Melody, Cassie will have to break the law and risk losing everything — her medical license, CIA career, her freedom, and possibly the only man she's ever loved.

Melody will get imprisoned only if she's caught, right? So Cassie's dilemma is whether to report her, try to stop her, or do nothing. You need to be specific about what's at stake here for each of those choices. Breaking the law brings possible prison. Losing her medical license, her career? What's the down side of that for her? 

You've created a too-good-to-true character and set her up as an avenging angel. This is textbook first novel syndrome. A character has to have some flaws to be interesting. She has to make tough choices. Maybe even wrong choices. There's really nothing better than someone doing good for the wrong reason and getting in trouble for it.

Also, the villains here have zero nuance. Thus they are uninteresting. This is why it's very very hard to write compellingly about child abuse and sex crimes. The perpetrators aren't all that interesting; they're just ugly souls I don't want to spend much time with. 

It tells you something that a lot of people thought Omar the rip and run artist was the most interesting character on The Wire; that Satan is more interesting than Christ in Milton's Paradises Lost and Found.

What makes both Omar and Satan interesting is the choices they make. We have sympathy for them. We see their flaws. We know they're doing the wrong thing, but we see why they are doing it.

DISMEMBRISTS is a 95,000 word adult thriller exploring themes of trauma, vulnerability, friendship, betrayal, sacrifice, and love.

Mentioning themes in a query is not the way to go. Tell me about the story.

This is my first novel, though I've spent 20+ years conceiving and writing advertising. After reading so many accounts of campus and military sexual assault, I had to write a response. This is it, in time for the #MeToo movement.

Even if I sold this book tomorrow, it wouldn't be on the shelves for another 12-18 months. Don't put anything in your query that will make me think it's going to be outdated any time soon. And sorry to say, what's of interest to people in social media today doesn't always last. Do I hope we continue to talk about sexual violence? Damn straight I do. But don't bet your query on it.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

1) This novel has a lot of action, but it's about the complications and mounting tension in the main character's life. You mention a thriller has larger stakes than one person's life, so how would you categorize this? Suspense?

Suspense novels have an uncertain outcome. Generally in a thriller we know Our Hero will prevail, we just don't know how, or at what cost. In suspense novels we're not so sure of the outcome. This is neither a thriller nor a novel of suspense. It's a crime novel.

2) The book has 3 acts with tension and stakes building. This query is about the final conflict. Is that okay?

No. You want to tell me about what happens in the first act. If you're querying with what happens at the end of the book, it's sign that you don't have enough plot or enough at stake. 

3) I feel the current title would grab attention, but is it a bad idea to tip my hand? Other titles I've considered include DISARMING THE BEASTS, and PREDATOR'S TITHE.

Don't worry about the title. But yes, the one you have makes the book sound like a horror novel. That said, I don't even consider the title when I'm looking at a query. This isn't even close to the terrible titles that actual clients have chosen for their mss (yes, they got changed!)

4) While the protagonist is a woman, I don't consider this is chick lit. Cassie is an emotionally damaged, socially awkward Jason Bourne with a medical degree. Should I query chick lit agents or stick to thriller/suspense (or however you categorize this?)

This literally made me laugh out loud. You don't know what chick lit is do you? It's ok if you don't, it's a term that has to be learned like everything else. It's not a character flaw to not know everything. But chick lit is a term for  girl comes to city for job, finds love, battles love and bad boyfriends. In other words, books where the main character is the polar opposite of Jason Bourne.

Before you query anyone I'd suggest revising both the query and making sure the novel has enough plot, and three dimensional characters. I think you've got a problem there that this query illuminates.

Saturday, January 13, 2018


I've been wading in the shark tank for countless hours, slushing through every single archived post. My eyes sting and I'm dehydrated from all the salt water, but it's been worth it! Harpooning all the advice in the archives, I've brutalized my original query so much that I feel as vicious as a Great White. Still, writing can always be improved!

Q1: Way back in the archives you asked an author why he/she would look for an agent if they already have 19 published novels. Do you think the sentence after my bio explains why I'm seeking representation? Is it okay to leave in?

Q2: Agents are looking for ethnically diverse characters, especially in children's stories and fantasy, right? I touch on this in the query AND state it in the housekeeping part. Is this okay or am I stuffing it in the agent's face?

Dear Query Shark,

In the realm of Edynfell there are magical beings called larsts. Conrad doesn't know what larsts are or that he's supposed to be one. In fact, Conrad knows very little about himself. Is he black, white, or mixed race? Is he actually thirteen years old?

The only thing Conrad knows for sure is he's stuck in Pennsylvania's Foster Care system. When he's adopted under bizarre circumstances, he discovers larsts, his own incredible background, and Edynfell.

I like that second paragraph a whole lot better than the first. It gives me a MUCH better idea of the story.  Even if you just switch the order, you'll be better off.

Conrad faces more than magic and monsters in this medieval-like realm. All teenage boys must train for the honor of becoming a knight, but greater things are at stake than knighthood. There are two possible larsts who can unite the divided clans of Edynfell: Conrad and a powerful dark larst whose cruel heart will destroy the realm.

This is all set up and background. I know you want to get us into the world, but it's more important to introduce us to Conrad so that we care about what happens to him. You haven't done that here yet.

This is also pretty abstract. Why are the clans divided? Why does anyone care? Why do they need to be united? Why are we so sure Conrad isn't the dark larst? (Now THAT would be a good story!)

The clans will unite when the twelve missing jewels from the Crest of Edynfell are collected. The problem is Conrad's lack of powers keeps him from believing he's a larst. Conrad needs to have faith in himself and his new friends to unite Edynfell before darkness rules.

Well, that's just not enough to carry a book. Something has to be at stake here, even in a middle grade novel. Something has to be at stake for us to care about what happens to the characters.  

Also, if he doesn't have powers, how is he a larst?
And what does his being multi-racial (paragraph one) have to do with anything? I actually like it better when race is just something a character is, not a plot point. But that means you don't mention his racial makeup till the housekeeping section since it's not a key part of the story.

CONRAD OF EDYNFELL: THE KING'S JEWEL is a MG fantasy with 75,000 words and has potential to be a series. The protagonist is bi-racial and I understand agents are seeking ethnically diverse characters.

Please leave out any kind of statement about what we're looking for. We know what we're looking for.

I am an experienced author of twelve published novels with Small Company Pubbing Books Inc. I am seeking representation to help grow my career into larger publishing companies and wider distribution. 

You want someone who can grow your career. You don't need to say anything else.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

This just doesn't stand out. It's not terrible. It's not even bad. But it's not fresh and new. It doesn't do what a query must do: entice me to read on. I don't read a lot of mg fantasy, but I've started to recently, and the ones that just heat up my enthusiasm teapot are the ones where I really care what happens to the characters. I don't care about Conrad yet, so this query  isn't effective yet.

Yes, we're looking for books with diverse characters, but that's in addition to a compelling plot, not in lieu of.

I think the problem here is the book, not the query.

As to your questions:

Q1: Way back in the archives you asked an author why he/she would look for an agent if they already have 19 published novels. Do you think the sentence after my bio explains why I'm seeking representation? Is it okay to leave in?

Yup. Yup.
You can actually leave it out too unless you want me looking up sales figures for your previous books.

Q2: Agents are looking for ethnically diverse characters, especially in children's stories and fantasy, right? I touch on this in the query AND state it in the housekeeping part. Is this okay or am I stuffing it in the agent's face?

Just tell me about the story. You can leave out anything about what I'm looking for. 

Sunday, January 7, 2018


It has taken me countless edits of this query to get it where it is now, but it still garners no positive responses. I am wondering if I'm doing anything jarringly wrong and have yet to realize it. I also have a specific concern about mentioning so many characters and plot points in the query that may or may not make it confusing.

Dear Query Shark,

America in 2050 has never been in a better state, but military prodigy Alyssa Scarlet is at her very worst.

Let's start with military prodigy. Prodigy is generally defined as someone who demonstrate an exceptional talen at an early age. Mozart is the go-to example. Shirley Temple was another.

Your use of it here doesn’t tell me anything. Is Alyssa a six-year-old sniper? A twelve-year old general? (ok, that's a bad example, cause ALL twelve-year-olds think they're the family general.)

And it's quibbling, I know, but describing a country as being "in a better state" sounds off to me, given that states are geographical components of a country. At first glance when you hear America and state in the same sentence it's confusing. This is the kind of writing that tells me you're not stepping back to look at this with an objective eye. You know what you mean here and you're assuming/believing/hoping everyone else will too.

Revision is where you step back and think: how can someone misunderstand this, and then fixing/clarifying/changing words. (I should mention it took me YEARS to learn this, and only after daily blog posts with comments from readers that showed they didn't get what I was bumbling around trying to say.)

The pressures of being a politician’s goddaughter are becoming unbearable, especially with her obsessive compulsivity tearing away at her heart.


This sentences has NO connection to the preceding sentence. Unless being a politician also means you're in the military.

And "obsessive compulsivity" makes me reach for my grammar school instructions for sentence diagramming. In other words you've stopped communicating and started confusing. This is NOT what you want to do in a query.

Sentences and paragraphs should flow one from another UNLESS you're deliberately veering to a new place for effect.

At this point, Alyssa’s not sure if she has one left, which is what makes her the perfect goddaughter to a crime lord.

One what?

And here's where I stop reading.

You've got a lot of description but nothing is clear.

But to be the perfect goddaughter, Alyssa must commit a number of crimes.

I'm pretty sure I've never asked any goddaughter of mine to commit a crime. On the surface this sentence is ridiculous. If there's a reason GodPops wants Alyssa out on a crime spree, you need to tell us. It's not something your reader will intuit.

She reluctantly accepts a job with her older sister, Avarice, a girl perpetually stuck in a place between mania and depression. Their latest target: murder Jason Drake and steal Excalibur, the sword of lightning. Unfortunately for them, criminal prodigy Jason Drake is at the best he’s ever been. At least, that’s what he tells himself.

None of this makes sense. You've got too much information without answering the basic questions of plot: What does Alyssa want and what's keeping her from getting it?

Also, two main characters with sound-alike names is something I'd always ask you to change before a ms went on submission (Alyssa/Avarice.) And using Avarice as a name sounds like a Puritan morality tale where Prudence and Chastity the blacksmith's daughters are subjected to the advance of Lewd and Lust the sons of the town's evil overlord. In other words, consider a name change.

Jason has his personal demons, but he doesn’t let them stop him from doing what he does best.

Personal demons is such a cliché that one of my colleagues started saying she'd only consider manuscripts with professional caliber demons. No more amateurs.

Thievery is practically his middle name, and his next target is Excalibur. But getting past security is the least of his problems. Jason has to think of a way to get away from his controlling older brother, Connor, and the very pretty girl who is after his sword and his heart— quite literally. And those are the things he knows about. Neither Jason nor Alyssa know about the sequestered elves with a vendetta. The island of Avalon has a war to win, and they’re willing to sacrifice the human side of their captives in order to forge the perfect weapons. Alyssa and Jason must find a way off the island, or depend on their families to rescue them, which may end in disaster.

Since I've stopped reading, I won't see this but again you've got so much information here that my head is spinning. Focus!

Excalibur and Avalon are specific names we associate with an established story. Unless you're retelling that story, with a new twist, it's better to have your own names for things.

To help her find the pair, Avarice enlists the help of Jade, a schizophrenic girl who calls the basement her Wonderland, and Connor, the boy who is practically married to his money. Their goals are clear in the beginning, but the underhanded politics of their nation beg the question of where their loyalties really lie, ensuing America’s second civil war. Even if Alyssa and Jason escape Avalon, will they ever escape war?

I need a sword of lightning here to cut through the underbrush. You've got five named characters (three is the most you should have) not counting the swords and the locations.

THE LIGHTNING INHERENT is a YA Science-Fiction novel that includes LGBT themes, racial diversity, characters with mental illness, and social justice themes that give the book a dark contemporary twist.

Social justice is dark? Really? I'm pretty sure that's not what you meant to convey.

THE LIGHTNING INHERENT is complete at 95,000 words and is available upon request.

Of course it's available on request. You don't need to state the obvious.

Thank you in advance for your consideration,

This is over written.

It reads like a first draft, and yes, I know you have worked on it but you haven't honed it down to the essentials. Revise OUT everything that isn't about Alyssa and Jason. Focus on the main story.

And yes, you have entirely too many characters and plot points.

Revise, resend.

Sunday, November 19, 2017


Question: I have revised my query until my fingers bled. And yet nothing. So I am wondering if I'm doing something in my query to put agents off without realising it.

Dear QueryShark:

Loren Blake is taking down the patriarchy one revenge plot at a time.

Well I'm all for that, but this doesn't give us any sense of of what's at stake.

As long as she can get away with it.

And this doesn't help. It's too abstract.

When she starts dating school goth Alexa their relationship is like pouring gasoline on the fire and she finds out just how far she is willing to go for the people she loves and what she's willing to sacrifice to protect them.

Too abstract. 
Gasoline on a fire is a cliche. 

She discovers that a boy in her school has raped her closest friend and knows that the only way to stop him is to kill him. Loren doesn’t believe in second chances.

Aha, finally!
Here's where the story starts. 
Why does she think the only way to stop him is to kill him?

And you can bet that by now, she knows how to get away with it.

The Gospel According to Loren Blake is my first novel, it is YA contemporary complete at 84,000 words. It has an lgbt protagonist and is #ownvoices. I am a thirty year old private tutor with purple hair that made me a poor fit for my previous career in teaching.

Your main character's name is an oddity. Laurell K. Hamilton wrote the Anita Blake vampire series. That info was just a squiggle in my brain as I read this, but my first thought was you were paying homage to those books, or that author. (The Goth reference above probably got me thinking like that.)
If you ARE, fine. If you're NOT, you might consider a name change.

I have included the first ten pages and a synopsis below. I hope you enjoy it and I look forward to hearing from you.

Of course you hope I enjoy it. That's like saying you hope I'll keep breathing while I read it. I'm picky about this stuff because I like to see a query that doesn't state the obvious. If you do that here, you'll do it in the novel.  Yes, persnickty and nitpicky. But there's a reason for that.

The only way to close a query is Thank you for your time and consideration.

The answer to your question is yes, this query doesn't do the job. 
You've got the goods, this is an interesting plot, and you've got voice (I know that from your description of yourself) but this query doesn't show that well enough.

Revise, resend.