Sunday, October 4, 2015


Question: Frankly, I'm bumfuzzled. I've attended break-outs at conferences, talked to a former-agent, read all your archives (really), and spent hours on other blogs about querying. All the advice seems conflicting. I need to make you care about the character...but not include backstory. I need to make my teenage protagonist's voice come through...but I need to write professionally. I need to follow all the rules...and know when to break the rules. I need to include biographical information...and not waste your time with my irrelevant bio. Please help me have the best chance of getting through the slush pile!

Dear Query Shark,

Ingrid’s amazing spring break trip to Rome is about to go up in fifty-foot flames.

One of the ways you convey voice is through word choice. "Amazing" is both over-used and tepid. It doesn't really tell us much about why Ingrid is looking forward to the trip. Is it the trip itself or the destination? Is there a more vivid word that will capture Ingrid's expectations about the trip?

And fifty foot flames is hyperbole. Hyperbole can be very effective, but here, it feels slightly hysterical.

How about you start with showing, rather than telling:

Her seatmates on the plane turn up dead.
All of them? Are they her travelling companions or just random strangers? Did she kill them?

She discovers she’s carrying a jump drive worth 400 billion dollars.
Does it have a price sticker?  In other words, how does she know?

And the next thing she knows, the Mafia is trying to kill her and her family.
Revenge for her killing her seatmates?

You've got too much and too little going on here. That's kind of a neat trick actually. Lots of stuff, but zero context.

Back to basics:

What does Ingrid want?

Why can't she have it? Who's getting in the way?

If  she chooses to (do something here)

she'll have to (what she'd have to give up)

If she chooses NOT to (the something from above)

she'll lose (something else)

Just when it seems things can’t get more mucked up, Ingrid meets Alessandro, the epically hot heir to the Mafia throne. If only he would stop duct taping her to chairs and stealing her stuff, they might have a future. All Ingrid wanted was to eat gelato and speak lousy Italian. Now she’s got a new spring break bucket list:

1. Save her family.
2. Thwart the crime of the century.
3. Make out with Bad Hottie.
4. Get out of Rome with her head still attached to her body.

Too bad she has zero skills to ensure any of those outcomes.

Senseless Things is a 64,000 word YA romantic suspense.

Thank you for your time.

There's a lot of conflicting advice, but I hope you'll see that getting down the basics in a query is the first step. Do that, and the rest will follow.

Start over.



Saturday, September 26, 2015


Dear Query Shark,

Ramanya, a former Burmese rebel soldier now living as a monk in Thailand, thinks believes his family was murdered sixteen months ago. Then a mysterious man tracks him down and says they are alive. He is wanted by the junta ruling his countryBurma, so a trip home to search for them would result in certain death if he is captured.

Other than being a little clunky (which generally means you just haven't revised enough) this isn't a bad start to a query. Readers will have a sense of what Ramany's problem is (his family might be alive) and what's keeping him from getting what he wants (he's wanted in Burma.)

Father Bob Hanlan, a British priest and political agitator, has ties to the rebel soldiers now staging an armed takeover of the Burmese (Myanmar) embassy in Bangkok. He sees shadows following him everywhere he goes. There is a bounty on his head, and a corrupt Thai police officer is using it to blackmail him. 

This is a less effective paragraph. "Sees shadows following him everywhere" is too abstract to provide tension. If there's a bounty for him, why hasn't the Thai police officer collected it? Why is there a bounty on him? This paragraph produces too many questions.

Michael Shaw, an American teacher caught in the seedy underbelly of life in Bangkok, uses booze and sex to try and forget all the legal and personal problems he is running away from in the States. His students love him, but it’s not enough to stop him from sinking into a spiral of self-destruction. 

And this is where I start to roll my eyes (which is NOT something you want your reader to do.) This character might as well be named Cliché Expatriate.  You need to find a way to describe this character so he's of interest to the reader. To do that, consider why Michael Shaw would think he's the hero of this story. 

All three come together and set off on a 48-hour journey to get Ramanya back into his country and re-united with his family. The trip takes them through the exotic, sometimes dangerous countryside of Thailand. Their relationships deepen along the way, propelling the story toward a powerful climax at Three Pagodas Pass along the Thai-Burmese border.

"All three come together" means what? They're sharing a taxi? It will help if we have a sense of what connects them, and why  they want to help Ramanya. In other words, what's at stake for the characters.  

"Their relationship deepen(s) along the way" makes it sound like they're all having sex. It may be Thailand but I'm pretty sure that's not what you mean.

"Propelling the story toward a powerful climax" is another eye-roller if we are wondering if they are having sex.

Clearly that's not what you intend here. Where you're foundering is on generalities.  Be specific. Remember, you do NOT include the whole story. At most you include Act 1. The purpose of a query is to entice the reader to ask for the whole novel.  You should NEVER include the climax of the novel or the ending in a query.

"Don't Go, Ramanya" is a literary thriller currently about 54,000 words in length. 

And here's where I would stop reading and say no. This isn't a literary thriller right now (more on that later) but the word count is the real stumbling block. There's simply no way you can write a fully realized story set in Thailand with three interlinking characters and clock in at 54K. 

One of the great things about reading books set in places that aren't' my apartment is that I get a sense of a place that is new, different, unusual. Describing that world so that your reader is immersed takes words.  I want to see those streets, smell the air, feel the humidity, get a sense of how people there live their day to day.  You need double this word count most likely.

I'm all for lean and elegant books, but this isn't that. It's anorexic. And the reason I know this is cause your query didn't have much heft to it either.

 Now, literary thriller.  Literary is tricky. Literary is used to describe the writing rather than the plot. We use it when we mean the book has phrases and sentences that knock your socks off.   Generally it's not  phrase I use when pitching a thriller because thrillers need to be commercial. That said, I've got some guys writing pretty literary stuff. I'd offer up Lee Goodman and Jeff Somers as two examples. Two examples of guys writing straight up commercial thrillers: Patrick Lee, and (not a client) Lee Child. 

You have ONE element of a thriller here: the ticking clock. Unfortunately we don't know why the clock is ticking.  What happens at the end of the 48 hours?

Two other elements of a thriller are: an international stage (generally that means the plot moves from place to place, not that it's just set in an international location); stakes above the personal (governments fall, war breaks out etc).

And of course, you're missing an antagonist. That's a problem.

I’m a first time novelist. I have had several short stories published in various underground or regional journals, as well as some (now defunct) e-zines. In 2000, a much earlier version of my website was named "Top Five Literary Sites" by Yahoo/Pulp Eternity. I publish under the pen name  "Pen name". My full name is "Real Name" I’ve had many different lives, including film and video production on such projects as "The Lord of the Rings" films. You are welcome to Google me or see my LinkedIn page for more about my background.

This isn't how you list a pen name. You either sign the query with your name and say (writing as: nom de plum) or sign it with your nom de plume. 

And your name goes at the close of the query, with all the contact points like phone and website underneath it. Don't count on anyone using LinkedIn to get information about you. Since LinkedIn was one of the worst causes of spam, I unsubscribed and blocked it from my email. I can't see much more than a name if I click on a link.

I’ve reached out to you because of your interest in upmarket literary fiction. I’m going after a modern day “Graham Greene” vibe in this story.

If you're writing a literary thriller you really want to reach out to agents because of their interest in literary thrillers not upmarket literary fiction. Also "upmarket literary" is redundant. 

I'm not sure how effective the Graham Greene comparison is. For starters his books are 30-50 years old now. People read them more as genre education than because someone handed them a copy and said "oh my god, you must read this."  Word of mouth is the single biggest way books are sold, so comps should be books that people are talking about.

Thanks so much for taking the time to consider this.

I can be reached directly at:

Put all this at the bottom, under your signature

Take care,

(website again)

You only need to list your name and your website once.

I have a particular soft spot for stories set in Burma/Myanmar, so I'm exactly your target audience for this query. The query did not do its job however. It did not entice me to read pages. 

Get more plot on the page. Make me desperate to find out what happens next.

 If you can cough up an antagonist, that would be a good thing here. 

Revise, resend.

Friday, August 21, 2015


Effective Query Letters

1  A query letter is a business letter
The purpose is two-fold
            1a Entice the agent to read your pages/request the full manuscript
            1b Demonstrate you are not loony tunes.

What this means:
            1c You do not speak of yourself in third person, state the obvious, try to be witty.

            NO: Janet Reid is a literary agent with impeccable taste in thrillers
            YES: I am a literary agent with impeccable taste in thriller writers.

            NO: I'm writing today to introduce you to my novel
            NO: I'm writing to ask you to review my novel

            NO: Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya and I've got a novel you're going to die for.

            NO: Your website says you are looking for homoerotic haiku. 
                    Boy have a I got a book for you.

            YES: Jack Reacher found himself in hot water once again.

2  A query letter requires "show don't tell" exactly like your novel
            Example: "My novel is funny" is less effective than actually being funny on the page.

NO:  (Title) is beautifully written, with a strong distinct voice, and characters that come alive on the page .

YES: Lee Lofland is a man with a ready smile and eyes that have seen everything. He's the man you want with you in the bar when the open carry whack job comes in with a rifle.

NO: KILLING FLOOR explores themes of alienation, democracy and familial bonds.

YES: Jack Reacher was enjoying his seventeenth cup of diner coffee when the SWAT team in Margrave, Georgia rolled up to arrest his ass.


3  A query letter MUST tell an agent what the book is about 
            3a  Who is the main character?
            3b  What does he want?
            3c  What is keeping him from getting what he wants?
            3d  What must he sacrifice to get what she wants?

            3a Jack Reacher
            3b wants to see the grave of a old, almost forgotten blues musician
            3c when he is suddenly, inexplicably arrested for a murder he could not have 
            3d When the guy behind the false arrest is also killed, Reacher can stay in town, 
                 at great peril to himself, to solve the case or he can leave shake the dust of 
                 this crazy town off his sneakers and get on with his wandering.

How to convey what the book is about:

            3e The main character must decide whether to:

            3f If s/he decides to do (this), the consequences/outcome/peril s/he faces are:

            3g If s/he decides NOT to do this:  the consequences/outcome/peril s/he faces are:

            3e Katniss Everdeen must decide whether to take her younger sister's place when she is             called to be their district's entry in the Hunger Games.

            3f If she goes in her sister's place, her family will suffer because Katniss' hunting skills             are what keeps them from starving now;

            3g If she decides not to go, her sister will surely die in the Games.

Notice: no backstory. Your reader will jump right in to the story with you.

This is not intended to show the exact wording you use in a query, but it will help you distill your plot to the essentials. You need the essentials of Act One, not a rundown of the entire plot. A query is not a synopsis[i].

4. If you're having trouble getting a query to work within these parameters:

            A. These are guidelines, not a template. Change up. Start with the antagonist.

            B. Break all the rules but do it in a way that is utterly compelling:


One week ago, Claire's cousin Dinah slit her wrists.

Five days ago, Claire found Dinah's diary and discovered why.

Three days ago, Claire stopped crying and came up with a plan.

Two days ago, she ditched her piercings and bleached the black dye from her hair.

Yesterday, knee socks and uniform plaid became a predator's camouflage.

Today, she'll find the boy who broke Dinah.

By tomorrow, he'll wish he was dead.

Premeditated is a 60,000 word contemporary YA novel. Chapters or a synopsis are available on request. (PREMEDITATED by Josin McQuein)

 C. Write a LOT of words, then pare down.

D. Write one sentence paragraphs with WHO WHAT WHY THEN

            WHO: Jack Reacher
            WHAT: got arrested
            WHY: cause they needed a fall guy for a murder
            THEN: there was a second murder (and he couldn't have done that one either)

In each of these cases, this isn't what your query will say, but it will help you get the right elements on the page.

4  A query letter should include
            word count 
            title (and just pick one, no need to have "working title" mentioned)
            any publishing credits you have [Don't have pub credits? Don't worry, and don't reach]                        

(the novel has to be finished.  You don't have to say it is but just know it)

5  A query letter must avoid several instant-rejection phrases such as
            fiction novel
            sure fire best seller
            film potential
            "dear agent"/"dear sir or madam"

6  Things to avoid in query letters
            Don't beg  "please read my query"
            Don't flatter  "I know you're very busy"
            Don't demean yourself  "I'm just an unpublished writer with big dreams"
            Don't quote rejection letters  "Jenny Bent loved this but she was too busy"
            Don't quote critique groups, friends, paid editors or conference contacts 
           (except Lee Lofland of course)

            Don't ask rhetorical questions "What if you were stranded on a desert island 
            with an unpublished writer?"

            Writing in your character's persona "I'm a serial killer. I like to target literary agents."

7. Extra hints
            Don't offer exclusives

            Don't attach anything

            Don't engage your spam filter or auto responder

            Don't be afraid to sound stark[ii]. Most query letters are verbose. Make your point then             stop.

            Avoid sweeping statements. Be as specific as possible with every single word

            Put your contact info at the bottom.[iii]   
            Standard business letter form is DIFFERENT for electronic queries.

            Don't cut and paste.  Type a master email and duplicate it.

            Expect to spend two months writing a good solid query letter.

            Expect to hear no. A lot. Or nothing, even more.

            Have a query tracking system in place so you know who/what/when/where.

            Writing a query letter can help you find major problems in your book. 

8. Correct form for an electronic query for FICTION

Subj: QUERY-Title by Author

Dear (Name of Agent)

FIRST: 100 word paragraph answering the question "what is this book about?"
Have a line break every three lines  Big blocks of text are hard to read
(example is on next page)

SECOND: Your writing credits and bio.

THIRD: Genre/word count. Maybe even title if it fits better here.[iv]

FOUR: Any kind words;  how you found me; why you picked me to query.

Closing:  Thank you for your time and consideration

Your name
your email
your telephone
Your website
Your blog
Your twitter name
Your facebook page[v]

Your physical address

You don't need all these social media avenues.
            List what you do have.
            List the ones you want agents to see.
            Clean up your web presence!

There should be no live links in a query.[vi] 
too many links consign you to the spam filter, never to be seen again.

9. Why a big block o'text doesn't work

You get big blocks of text when you cut and paste from word docs.[vii]

This is a good query. I signed the author.  Notice that the format makes it very hard to read.

When failed salesman Johnny Wolfe encounters a dying dog in the street while walking to work one morning, he suspects there’s a sense of the wild returning to the city.  When the dog kills one of Johnny’s rival salesmen, his suspicions are confirmed.   Wolf is a 78,000 word noir thriller.  Based upon your interest in suspense, and the off-beat humor you exhibit on your blog, I thought you might enjoy reading and representing the novel for publication.
Wolf traces two days in the life of Johnny Wolfe, a man mired in loss – the loss of his childhood pet, the failure of his marriage, and the end of a once prosperous career selling surveillance and security equipment.  He yearns to get his life back on track, and when he finds a $1.2million sales order on his colleague’s now dead body, he figures this deal could be the answer.  
Except what is the product that is being sold?  Why doesn’t it show up in any of the company sales catalogs?  And what does this product have to do with the sudden return of dogs to the city?  Or are they really dogs, and why is it that the people in Johnny’s life all smell so much like they’re out to get him?  Wolf is a boy and his dog story, except that the boy has grown into a hapless salesman and the dogs are all werewolves.
I am a first time novelist who’s worked in sales for a lifetime.  I am also a dog enthusiast.  I’ve published various pieces in local newspapers and have won an Emmy for video editing. 
Thanks for reading these pages of Wolf.   You seem interested in suspense with a unique bent, and that’s what I’m going for in Wolf.  I hope you enjoy.

Here's how it should look in EMAIL (notice the lines break more often than every paragraph)[viii]

(1)When failed salesman Johnny Wolfe encounters a dying dog in the street while walking to work one morning, he suspects there’s a sense of the wild returning to the city.  When the dog kills one of Johnny’s rival salesmen, his suspicions are confirmed.  

Wolf is a 78,000 word noir thriller.  Based upon your interest in suspense, and the off-beat humor you exhibit on your blog, I thought you might enjoy reading and representing the novel for publication.

(2)Wolf traces two days in the life of Johnny Wolfe, a man mired in loss – the loss of his childhood pet, the failure of his marriage, and the end of a once prosperous career selling surveillance and security equipment.

 He yearns to get his life back on track, and when he finds a $1.2million sales order on his colleague’s now dead body, he figures this deal could be the answer.
(3)Except what is the product that is being sold?  Why doesn’t it show up in any of the company sales catalogs?  And what does this product have to do with the sudden return of dogs to the city? 

Or are they really dogs, and why is it that the people in Johnny’s life all smell so much like they’re out to get him?  Wolf is a boy and his dog story, except that the boy has grown into a hapless salesman and the dogs are all werewolves.

(4)I am a first time novelist who’s worked in sales for a lifetime.  I am also a dog enthusiast.  I’ve published various pieces in local newspapers and have won an Emmy for video editing.

(5)Thanks for reading these pages of Wolf.   You seem interested in suspense with a unique bent, and that’s what I’m going for in Wolf.  I hope you enjoy. 

10. What  you need BEFORE you query

                                                Fiction             Memoir            Non-fiction

query letter                                 yes               yes                        yes

website*                                    yes               yes                        yes

dedicated query/author email   yes               yes                        yes[ix]

word count                                  yes               yes                         no

finished project                           yes               yes                         no

proposal                                       no                no                        yes

platform/established presence      no               yes                      yes

blurbs                                             no              no                        no

Marketing strategy                        no               yes                     yes

Answer to the question:                no               yes                     yes
"Why I wrote this book"

comparison books                         no               yes                     yes
"how is this book different
from others in this category"

*what counts as a website?

A blog and website can be seen by anyone who wants to reach you

Anything that  can only be seen by "members" does not count.

It's important there be NO barrier between your contact info and the person who wants to reach you

Workshop presenter

Janet Reid is a literary agent at FinePrint Literary Management in New York City.  She keeps a blog at JetReidLiterary.blogspot com that answers questions from writers and allows her to rant on things that drive her crazy in publishing and reasons she loves her job and the city.

She also runs [x] a blog that posts (with permission) and critiques queries and revisions from writers.  To submit a query click on the link "how to submit a query to the shark."  It's all volunteer.

Her Facebook page is Janet Reid, Literary Agent.

Her clients include New York Times bestselling Patrick Lee (The Breach series and RUNNER); Jeff Somers (WE ARE NOT GOOD PEOPLE);  Laird Barron, the multiple award winning author of most recently THE BEAUTIFUL THING THAT AWAITS US ALL; Cornelia Read;  Dana Haynes; Lee Goodman; Terry Shames; Mike Cooper and Phillip DePoy.

Her list is largely crime novels and thrillers, and narrative non-fiction in history and biography.
She is a member of AAR, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, the Association of American Historians, the Civil War Roundtable of NYC, the Women's' National Book Association (NYC chapter), Biographers International Organization, and the Authors Guild.

She lives in Brooklyn and is tormenting herself by painting her apartment. Yes, 27 color samples later, it's almost done.

[i] A query is not a synopsis.
[ii] Don't be afraid to sound stark
[iii] Put your contact info at the bottom.
[iv] Put the housekeeping info after the story info
[v] You don't need ALL these social media touch points
[vi] No live links in a query
[vii] You get big blocks of text when you cut and paste from word docs.
[viii] the lines break more often than every paragraph
[ix] dedicated query/author email

[x] QueryShark.blogspot com has 260+ entries designed to help you revise your query to be more effective

Saturday, February 28, 2015

#269-revised twice

Revision #2

Sandra Lee Johnson's fledgling career as a government assassin may have been permanently derailed.

This makes me think that Sandra is just a new assassin but later you write:

"Sandra has survived for years as a killer-for-hire" 
so "fledgling career" is the wrong phrase here. If I change agencies, I wouldn't describe it as a "fledgling career" as a shark for RoyaltiesAreUs.  I'd  simply have a new place to hang my hat.

All because of one man.

Sandra's new employer, a DIA sub-contractor, recruited her because she could kill without remorse. She was perfect for their off-the-books charter: exterminate key terrorist supporters in such a horrific way that others would be convinced to find new occupations.

Sandra's first mission took her to Dubai, where she was supposed to terminate a high-level terrorist financier named Muhammad al-Abtari. Only one problem: unknown to anyone outside the CIA, al-Abtari was a highly prized Company asset.

Joe Armbruster, al-Abtari's handler, was aware that some unidentified group had been offing terrorists in heinous ways, and that his pet Islamist was next on their list. So he set up a sting using al-Abtari as bait.

You've solved almost all of the tone problem but it resurfaces here with "pet Islamist"

It almost worked.

Sandra managed to escape without being compromised, but Armbruster strongly suspected her involvement. Although he knew her only by an assumed name, he had seen her face.
Her organization's response was to spirit her away until they could get her off the CIA's 'Most Wanted' list.

Sandra prefers a more direct approach.

She knows it's not Armbruster's fault. Bad luck all around. Still, if you play in the killing fields, you know your death may be necessary to serve a larger purpose.

Sandra has survived for years as a killer-for-hire, so she knows how to murder and get away cleanly. Armbruster will make a very challenging target - exactly what she desires.

Unless he gets to her first.
The problem here isn't the query. You've got a good one now (once you fix that last issue with tone). The problem is what's at stake: nothing. It's a cat and mouse game between two people I don't really care about. Sandra, the remorseless killer, and Joe, the guy trying to stop her.  There's no larger issue, like the Fall of the Roman Empire, or the Coup Against The Queen of the Known Universe.

Think about the great cat and mouse game movie Hopscotch (based on the book by Brian Garfield). What's at stake there is the reputation of the CIA, but the difference is we really care about the Walter Matthau character and want him to prevail.  In your query, one side seems as bad as the other.

Assuming we're going to root against the terrorists just because they're terrorists doesn't really work. 

The question then becomes: who is the protagonist? Is it Joe or Sandra? We don't have to like either of them, but we must want one to prevail. 

In Ken Follett's masterful Key To Rebecca, we are introduced to the antagonist, and he has our sympathy for several chapters. Very slowly we come to realize he's the bad guy.  

The query for that book however would START with the fact that there is a spy in Cairo who can change the course of the war in North Africa. The cat and mouse game between the spy and the British major  has VERY high stakes (even though we actually know the outcome of the war before we even start the book.)

This is probably something to fix in the book first and then revise the query. 

And you might consider this: the idea that killing terrorists in horrific ways will dissuade them from doing anything defies logic. Uncertainty is what stops people in their tracks. The unknown. 

If you join TerroristsAreUs only to find that your friends are dropping dead for no apparent reason, in the most mundane of places, that's terrifying. Terrorists are people, not cardboard cutouts. I'm perfectly willing to risk a terrible death to defend my country. The uncertainty though of lots of unexplained deaths...frankly I'd be wondering if that was the hand of God saying "yea, you're on the wrong path, there bucko."

That's just something to think about. This is your book, and you should write the one you want. 


Revision #1

Sandra Lee Johnson is on the run.
From, of all people, the CIA.
Which, she thinks, is patently unfair. Since Sandra is working for a DIA contractor, they’re all on the same side, right?
I mean, come on. Is it her fault that Muhammad al-Abtari, her terrorist target, turned out to be a highly placed CIA asset? Or that the CIA thinks she was in Dubai to remove him from the board, even if she was?
It’s not as if she knew he was a double agent and went after him anyway. So why are they so upset?
Sure, her organization’s methods might seem a little extreme. Torture and dismemberment are illegal, blah blah blah.
Tell that to the terrorists.
The CIA might also be pissed because, about a month ago, one of her company’s teams swapped the heads of al-Abtari’s brother and sister-in-law. It messed up that hotel room in Santorini, too, but isn’t that what cleaners are for?
Again, who knew? Mistakes happen. No intelligence is perfect.
Some ball-less Justice Department wimp would no doubt love to get his hands on her organization. But for that to happen, those CIA agents first have to get their hands on her.
She’s asking herself how far she should go to protect her organization. She doesn’t really want to kill her own countrymen.
Then again, they brought this on themselves. A little inter-agency cooperation wouldn’t have hurt, would it?
There’s not much time left. Sandra needs to make a decision.
She just hopes it won’t be her last.

This is a mess. You're trying to be funny. Stop. I'm your EXACT audience for a thriller query and I can tell you that this flippant tone does not help you. Thrillers aren't flippant. They can be dark, sardonic and sarcastic, but they can't be flippant.

Also, this is a big block o'text, and thus it is close to unreadable on my screen. Almost every line here should have a line of white space after it.

As I see it you've got two problems: your query's tone reflects the book, and thus even if you polish up the query you're going to have a hard time with the book because of the tone, OR your query is not like your book, and that means all you need to do is quit trying to be clever, and just right a straightforward query that tells me who the main character is and what her choices are and what's at stake with those choices.

Have confidence that your story will be interesting in and of itself.

Revise, resend.


Dear Query Shark:

Most people, when offered a new job, find the decision process fairly straightforward. Since Sandra Lee Johnson’s profession is killing people, her decision process is understandably more complex.
If this is a query for a book about whether to take a job, you've set the stakes pretty low, even if the job is assassin.

Approached by her former ex-Army lover, Sandra is given the opportunity to kill terrorists for her country. And not just kill them, but to do so in ways that are so horrific they will dissuade the others from continuing with their radical ways. 

Illegal? Perhaps.  Effective? Probably.  Fun? Hell, yeah!

I'm as much in favor of kick ass, violent thrillers as the next shark, but I'm having a hard time with "fun."  This is one of those things that can work well in a book where you have time to meet the characters and appreciate their dark humor, or coping mechanisms. In a query, this a pretty brutal thing to read.

Sandra has a more immediate concern, however: survival. Someone now knows that she’s an assassin for hire.  Her primary objective is to find a way to protect herself.
Is she? I thought she'd been offered the job and was mulling it over (see paragraph one)

The non-governmental organization (NGO) who wants to hire her considers her to be the perfect candidate, largely because she can kill without remorse. Sociopathic tendencies are considered a positive when your job is to inflict terror. 
This is set up, and we're five paragraphs in to the query. Either this goes earlier, or comes out.

The NGO's leader has told her that, regardless of her decision, her secret is safe. Sandra can’t afford to believe them, as much as she’d like to, even though she considers the job perfect for her.

Someone knows she's an assassin? that's what's at stake?

To protect herself, she sets up a computer file outlining what she knows about the NGO. She then contacts an old friend, US Representative Pamela Calvert. Sandra knows that her former pal, who is just as callous as she is, owes her a favor.

Sandra explains her dilemma in vague and general terms. She then asks for her friend’s help, telling her she’ll send her the file if the NGO exposes her, or through a failsafe release process should they decide to remove their risk by killing her.

Sandra’s congressional friend agrees in principle with the NGO’s goals. She also realizes that exposing the organization could provide her with much-needed positive publicity for her upcoming Senate run. Accordingly, Representative Calvert sets out to find proof of the organization’s existence, uncaring of what such exposure would mean to Sandra.

Sandra would love nothing more than to take the torture game back to the terrorists. At the same time, her primary goal of self-protection may have unfortunate consequences.

If Sandra doesn’t play her balancing act perfectly, she may end up destroying both her organization and herself. Then again, as one of Sandra’s new colleagues puts it: how can you have any fun without a little risk?

Sandra couldn’t agree more. Then again, it all depends on how you define the word ‘fun.’ 
Shock Force is a 92,000 word International thriller. Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is a mess. You've got way too much focus on a question that doesn't matter: will she take the job. The book doesn't work unless she does take the job, so leave all that stuff out of the query.  Remember the Raymond Chandler quotes about kill your darlings. Here's where you see that in action.

Focus on what matters: Sandra's ugly job gets her killed unless…what? If she keeps the job a secret what good thing happens? What bad thing also happens?  What's her skin in the game so to speak?


I know you have told us not to use sentences that begin with 'but,' 'however' or 'so.' However (hee hee), the above query seems to lend itself to the use of those words.  Take the first paragraph, for example. It would seem to have more punch if it were written thusly: "Most people, when offered a new job, find the decision process fairly straightforward. But since Sandra Lee Johnson’s profession is killing people, her decision process is understandably more complex."

To me, the use of 'but' in that sentence gives the reader the instantaneous impression that what follows is going to be in opposition to what precedes it. Without that word, you don't set your emotional state to where this is going, so you have to think back to what came before to make complete sense of those two sentences. In other words, it doesn't seem to flow as well. When you read, "Since Sandra Lee Johson's . . .", you don't already know if her decision process is going to be straightforward or not, until you reach the end. It seems to be slighty more confusing without using that 'but.'

I could use the 'but' in a compound sentence, but then I'd violate your 'keep sentences short' rule.  So, my question: looking at the two competing first paragraphs, which one seems to give a better impression and flow? And could you also expand on why we shouldn't start a query sentence with those banned words?

You're worrying about the wrong thing here. The query doesn't work right now. You need to revise substantially.

And using but, how, so, or and effectively is perfectly acceptable in a query. All too often they're used as  filler. The way to make sure you're NOT using them as filler is to see if a sentence is stronger without them.  In your case, the words aren't filler.

I don't read queries with a check list of rules or watching for banned words (well, ok, fiction novel is the exception there)  I read them to find good stories I'll want to represent.  Right now you're not telling me about that story.

Revise, resend.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

#268-revised 1x

Revision #1

Dear Query Shark:

Michael is a problem solver – a 12-year-old brainiac who finds creative solutions where when others throw up their hands. But keeping him and his sisters under the State’s radar – even keeping them alive? This time, he just might be in over his head.

One of those tricky little mistakes that you catch only when you think about each word in a sentence. It's when (not where) because Michael finds solutions when other people give up, not where other people give up. See the difference?

Orphaned and determined not to be parceled out to foster families, Michael, Cassandra (16), and Kendra (5) disguise themselves and run away. The ‘missing children’ hide out, first, in a rustic campground - where all that stands between them and starvation is Michael’s ingenuity (Just don’t ask him what’s for dinner!) - and then in a vacant house where they try to ‘look normal,’ to hide in plain sight. But, normal people form relationships. And relationships are dangerous when you’re a fugitive. The Kindergarten teacher sees through Kendra’s boy disguise. The nice old lady Michael does chores for is oddly uninterested in his parents. And Cassandra’s police cadet boyfriend is asking way too many questions.

The rhythm of that second sentence improves if you leave out "to look normal." Again, that's something you'll catch only if you read the query out loud. 

These are all things you only catch after multiple revisions. It's WHY you make sure you do multiple revisions. 

Is there any chance the children can pull this off until Cassandra is old enough to be their legal guardian? Dare they trust that there might be another way to remain a family?

Middle Grade readers who loved Jack’s adventure and resourcefulness in Small Like an Elephant will enjoy BACKDOOR KIDS.

I have a BS in Journalism from the (University.) As a former freelance magazine journalist, I appreciate good editing and understand the importance of deadlines. BACKDOOR KIDS is my first novel and complete at 43,000 words.

We don't really call books for middle grade readers novels. I think it's safe to say this is your first book, or your first book for middle grade readers. (A chapter book has a lot of illustrations, and while this may become that, it isn't now.)

Leave out all that stuff about good editing and deadlines. I just assume you are all of those things until proven wrong. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is so much better than the first version! Congrats on some really hard work.

Revise, resend.

Dear Query Shark,

The orphaned Robinson children are in deep cow dung - Children's Services is set to parcel them out to foster families.  Except for Cassandra, 16; it's hard to find foster families for teenagers. She’s likely to end up in a juvenile facility.  

 This is a good opening for a query. Right away I have a sense of what's at stake: the kids being separated. Moreover I care about this because the idea of a regular 16 year old kid being put in a juvenile facility is just awful. I'm enticed to read on to find out what happens next. This is EXACTLY what you want in a query.

Cassandra will do anything to keep her family together.  Destroy her hair.  Lie. Get a job. Even eat nasty crustaceans and commit a crime (break into a house).  It’s a real pain to be in charge.  Things get extra complicated when she befriends a young police cadet with a good reason for being suspicious.  Maybe dating him isn't such a good idea.

And then splat. What does "destroy her hair" mean? Cut it and dye it mouse brown for a job? And "nasty crustaceans"? Like lobster?  

Then you say commit a crime (break into a house)--you only need ONE of those phrases, two is awkward. 

And then comes the romantic entanglement.  Except what's he suspicious of? Her loathing for lobster?

What you're NOT doing here is moving the story along. You've got a good set up in the first paragraph. How is Cassandra holding off Children's Services? Be specific.

12 year old Odd Duck Michael is observant and reads everything.  He also has a better than average memory.  He can build a shelter and safely feed his sisters worms and wild plants.  He’s why the children survive the campground.  Then his family holes up in a small town and, even before school starts, he’s more popular than he ever was at his old school.  The guys even want him on their football team.  Him, Michael the brainiac!  He doesn't want to leave his new life in Applegate. But staying requires remaining undercover in plain sight.  Easier said than done.

And if you could splat more you have just done it here. What campground? Are the children on the run? None of that is clear here. Not Clear is a BAD thing in a query.

Little Kendra is living her fantasy – she gets to be a boy.  But it isn't any fun to be hungry.  And she’s hungry enough to eat a bear.  Well, maybe not Bear, the dog.  But hungry enough to eat whatever Michael cooks on his tin can pan.  (As long as it isn't peas!)  The problem is, Kendra’s disguise is slipping. Her soon-to-be kindergarten teacher isn't fooled for a minute.  And Michael went and called Kendra ‘her’ in front of the old woman down the street. How much longer before all of their secrets get out?

What secret?  You've got a nice set up in paragraph one, but you've failed to tell us what the children are doing. Thus all this other stuff is confusing.

You've sacrificed clarity for telling us about the three characters. Don't do that. Tell us about the story, more specifically the plot.

Who is the antagonist? I'm assuming Children's Services but that's not clear here. I don't think Children's Services tracks kids down like bounty hunters, so we'll need something that gives some urgency to the plot.

Tweens who daydreamed in younger years of being as independent as The Boxcar Children will enjoy  BACKDOOR KIDS, complete at 43,000 words.

The Boxcar Children is a really difficult comp title because 1. The first one was published in 1924 and 2. It's gone on to become a classic.

Comp titles are generally used to show who the audience is for a book which means using a classic is statistically improbable.  You want book/s that are new, generally acquired within the last two years or so.

I have a BS in Journalism from the [University]  As a former freelance magazine journalist, I appreciate good editing and understand the importance of deadlines.  BACKDOOR KIDS is my first novel. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Question:  In QS critique #199-FTW, a query for a multi-perspective novel, you praised the writer for her restraint in not presenting each party’s perspective in her query.  I just violated that concept.  Do I need to rethink this? 

What you've given us here is essentially three versions of the same perspective: that of the kids. QS #199 had viewpoints from three different perspectives: the kidnapper, the kidnap victim, and the people left behind.   If you want to do three perspectives here you'd need the kids (whichever kid you chose), the people looking for them (Children's Services) and maybe the teacher.  

There's no way to do that in 43K words. There just isn't.  Also, if  you're writing for middle grade, I'm not sure you'd want to.

Your problem here is that the query doesn't work, not the number of perspectives. You've got one: 3rd person omniscient.  What you need now is a query that is a lot more specific and plot-centric.

Revise, resend.