Monday, July 11, 2016


Questions about this query:
1. Is the f-word taboo in a query? I looked through your archives but didn’t find anything on that, although I also didn’t see anybody else use it.

2. I travel full-time internationally so I don’t have a permanent mailing address or phone number. Will my query suffer for lack of contact details or how would you advise handling this?

Dear Query Shark,

Petty officer third class Simon Aster is a poet, and he’s out for blood. Make no mistake about it – Aster might be serving in Bill Clinton’s Navy but he’s damn sure no believer in America. Hell, his main goals for military service are to get back to Italy and write something destructive, not to mention spending his non-working hours as far from Americans as he can get. Especially cowboys. Aster fucking hates cowboys. So when he’s reassigned to Sardinia, Italy, on the half-female crew of the USS Robert English, everything seems to be going according to plan.

That first line is brilliant. It's brilliant because of the juxtaposition of "poet" and "out for blood" two things that seem quite opposite. Setting the time period with "Bill Clinton's Navy" is very deft.
And then the punch: He's no believer in America.

This is one of the best first paragraphs I've ever seen for enticing me to read on. Do I want to know what happens? Hell yes I do.

As to fucking cowboys, well, that's a problem and you were smart to realize it.
Not everyone is as relaxed about the f-bomb as the Shark.
Thus, unless you absolutely must use it, I'd take it out.
Do you need it here?
No you do not. You've got all guns firing here, you're ok with ramping down the invectives.

But that’s before he finds out he’ll be working in the Crane Shop; and once Aster gets a look at those powerful cranes on the upper decks of the submarine tender, all bets are off. Because as much as he loves poetry, and as much as he loves Italy, he might just love this job more. To make matters worse, Aster discovers that he actually likes the bunch of fucking cowboys who work in the Crane Shop.

Although of course now, with this second use of fucking cowboys, it's clear that it adds a layer of nuance to the description that you really wouldn't find with any other word.
So, I'm going to revise my earlier statement: I think you DO need "fucking cowboys" here and if an agent rejects based solely on the appearance of that word, you know s/he isn't reading for nuance and style, and that tells you something.

Anyway, if Aster can’t find a solution to his anorgasmia none of it’s going to matter. So far as he’s concerned, you can be the best damn crane operator in the Navy but you aren’t much of a man if you’ve got to take it out every time and use your hand to finish – poet or not. At first, Aster believes Italy will heal his inadequacy, then thinks maybe the cranes will, but as the stakes get higher and his disillusionment darker, Aster realizes that his very survival depends on whether or not he can get his pen working. Only, by now, he’s not sure if he should be attacking America or defending it.

Wait what??? WHAT? All of a sudden this is a novel about a guy who can't achieve orgasm?

If "out for blood" is some sort of euphemism for the sex theme, you've outsmarted yourself here. This reminds of the old joke about "get screwed by a beautiful woman" in which the object of the joke is expecting sex only to discover he gets fleeced instead. Only this time, your reader is the object of the joke, and the response is not to laugh, it's to hit the reject button.

What happened to the "doesn't believe in America?" thread?
And if you tell me that cranes is just some sort of metaphor I'm going to weep, because the idea of a novel about cranes on a submarine tender is really cool. 

You totally lose me in this third paragraph, and it's fucking breaking my heart because those first two were as good as I've ever seen.

Either you've lost the thread of the plot here, or you're writing a book I don't want to read. Both options are bad. One you can revise. One is just my bad luck.

Right here is where I'd send the form rejection. (notice I don't even read pages here)

THE CRANES OF KNOSSOS is a work of upmarket fiction in the K├╝nstlerroman tradition. It is complete at 102,000 words. I have included the first five pages below for your convenience.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Clearly you are a very good writer.
I really hope you're writing about something more than a guy's sex life cause I'm just not interested in that and I'm having a hard time thinking of anyone else who would be either.

As to your second question, just include the information that you travel full time at the bottom of your query right before thank you for your time and consideration.

I hope you have a US bank account cause otherwise getting you paid is a pain in the asterisk.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016


Dear QueryShark,

Penn, a free-spirited and tenacious baby peachick, is unafraid to speak his mind - even when it’s just him, up against all five of his rambunctious older brothers. So, when his brothers begin to tease him for the “girly” pink hue of his feathers, Penn decides to lead the group on a short walk through their prolific jungle home.

Along the way, each peachick marvels at the many different shades of pink they notice decorating the rich landscape. Wandering through the jungle’s tall clusters of snapdragons, tasting the succulent Sri Lankan jambu fruit, and even stopping to watch their very first sunrise, all five of Penn’s brothers feel increasingly silly for ever teasing him about his feathers in the first place. After offering Penn a heartfelt (and slightly embarrassed) apology, the brothers conclude that there is beauty in their diversity, and that all of the jungle’s many colors, even pink, are for everyone to enjoy and share in, equally. However, just before Penn can thank his brothers for their open mindedness and kind attitudes, a faint cracking sound is heard coming from underneath the foot of the nest.

As their twelve tiny eyes peer over the edge, another peachick finishes poking its way out of its partly-concealed egg. To Penn and his brothers’ surprise, a final peachick hops out of the egg, covered in short, stubby, brown feathers. With a wave of her tiny wing, she oh-so-cheekily introduces herself as their new and very first little sister.

I was once featured in Saugus High School’s Literary Magazine, and am currently working as a child care counselor at an elementary school in Los Angeles, California.

Penn the Peachick, a book of 600 words, is Juvenile Fiction.

No it's not. It's a picture book.
It's a picture book even if you are only writing the words (text), not providing the art.

The fact you don't know this means you don't know enough yet to query.
That's not a character flaw. It doesn't mean you're stupid.
I don't think either of those things when I get a query like this.
What I do think is you haven't done enough research about querying.

Picture book queries are unlike any other kind of query.
They include ALL the text.
You don't have to describe the plot. You don't need anything but the actual words of the story.

Picture books are INCREDIBLY difficult to write well.

I have ONE client who writes picture books and he sweats over every word, every pause,
every line break.
It's like writing poetry.

Thank you kindly for your time and consideration. I look forward to your response!

I'm pretty sure you didn't look forward to this.

Now, what to do: first of all, join the Society of Childrens Writers and Illustrators, one of the very best places to learn about this kind of publishing.

Second, do some research using "querying picture books" or "how to query a picture book" that will get you info on this particular form.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Questions: I use Mary Shelley in the opening line despite the fact that she is Mary Godwin at this point in history. Do you feel like it adds unnecessary confusion when I name Percy Shelley later on as her lover (and not husband)? My second question is if I should include the information that this is a planned series of five books, is that relevant at this stage?

Dear Query Shark,

Mary Shelley's Godwin's nightmares are going to kill her.
Your instinct that this is wrong are correct. Any reader who knows the "characters" here will know who Mary Godwin is.  Getting historical facts wrong drives most of them up the wall. Or maybe just me up the wall. In any case, use her correct name.

The added benefit is this: if the person reading the query doesn't know that Mary Godwin is Mary Shelley, it's a nice reveal. In other words win/win.

When a monster from out of dreams takes hold of a broken man and compels him to kill, Mary will do battle against a creature that has as its ally every inner demon she possesses. In the waking world, it stalks the streets as a possessed serial killer. In her dreams, it feeds on all the pain she can't let go— of losing her mother, of being disowned by her father, and of watching her two-year-old son die.

And splat.
I'm totally lost here. 

If you cut the entire paragraph here, and start with the set up, it helps.

The year is 1816, and through strange weather and relentless rain, Mary has arrived at the home of the infamous poet-in-exile, Lord Byron. Together with her exuberant lover Percy Shelley, her vexing stepsister, and Byron's awkward personal physician, they find equal parts inspiration and irritation as the dreary summer unfolds. 

Don't be afraid to be plain: In 1816 Mary Godwin arrives at the home of..

And "they find equal parts etc" doesn't seem to have much to do with what follows.

They have assembled under the promise Lord Byron can explain the cause of their unremitting night-terrors, insomnia, and sleepwalking. All of these afflictions, he reveals, are the byproduct of their special heritage. They are Benendanti, an ancient legacy of powerfully lucid-dreamers able to move through the dreams of others.

In Geneva, a string of murders goes unsolved, and the shadow is cast on Lord Byron. He and the others sense the force behind these brutal killings to be not of the waking world, but a creature borne out of dreams. Mary and the new Benendanti must each confront their own inner darkness to have any hope of bringing such a monster to light. It is a race to free the ravaged mind of the killer in dreams, before his bloody hands find them first in the waking world.

The shadow is cast: do you mean suspicion is cast?
Also, the shadow implies there is only one shadow and it's on Lord Byron. A shadow means one of many. Yes, a/the matters. That's the kind of detail I notice. 

And I'm not sure if "ravaged mind of the killer dreams" actually makes sense. Again: plain is good.
It's very hard to write plainly. VERY hard.

A YEAR WITHOUT SUMMER is a historical fantasy (in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) complete at 115k words with more than 50+ illustrations by the author. Thank you for your time and consideration.

50+ illustrations by the author? INSTANT NO. 
Putting this in your query is a huge HUGE red flag. For starters, most adult novels don't have illustrations. Second, even if there were illustrations, there aren't going to be 50. Third, the fact that you include this makes me wonder what else you don't know. Like, there are going to be edits, and no you don't have control over the title or the cover.

If you want this book to have illustrations, most likely you're a good candidate for self publishing. Total artistic control etc etc.

To answer your other question from above: I'd leave out that you plan this to continue over five books. You'll need to get one published before you have two, let alone five.  The conversation about sequels can take place at a later date.

I've had editors say no to debut novelists cause they were leery of the "it's five books total" plan. That was a brutal lesson let me tell you.

Revise this. Think plain.
Even if you want your book to be not-plain, working in the short format of a query means you have to get to the point and communicate clearly. This is not the time for your reader to wonder what you mean. That's for chapter XXIX, footnote z.

Friday, June 17, 2016


My novel weaves back and forth between 1991 to present, but the query letter focuses on the present timeline, with a few references to the past. I'm not sure if I've been successful or if it's a muddy mess.

Dear Query Shark:

Heather Cole has a secret. When she was twelve, she killed her best friend. A mythical figure called The Red Lady made her do it and helped her get away with it, too. Twenty-five years later, Heather, now a child psychologist, receives a half-heart necklace in the mail. The last time she saw it was on the body of her friend.

Construction crews are about to dig up a field near her parents' house, and she has to find the evidence buried there before they do. More pieces of her past arrive in the mail, each one telling a different story. And someone's lurking outside her office. Someone who reminds her of the Red Lady.

Since she "got away with it" what evidence is there? In other words, did Heather  get away with it, or just avoid suspicion. Two very different things.

You might consider leaving the question of whether the Red Lady is real more ambiguous. Ambiguity is good in a novel like this. Given the next paragraph, it seems like there IS ambiguity already!

As much as Heather would like to believe the Red Lady's real, she knows better now, which makes her a cold-blooded murderer. Unless someone's been playing a masterful game of manipulation all along. Even with all her experience in the workings of the human mind, the search for the truth might drag her into a labyrinth of lies she can't escape.

THE LIAR'S TRUTH, a thriller that weaves back and forth between the present and the summer of 1991, is complete at 83,000 words.

This is a very good way to handle the two timelines. Just from reading this query I can intuit that 1991 is the year Heather killed her best friend.

This is not a thriller. This is psychological suspense. And that's good for you, cause thrillers are harder to sell right now.

I'm the author of THIS (Small Publisher, 2016), a novel, and THAT (Small Publications, 2015), winner of the This is Horror Award for Short Story Collection of the Year. My short fiction has been nominated twice for a Bram Stoker Award, reprinted in The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror and The Year's Best Weird Fiction and published in in various anthologies and magazines, including Cemetery Dance Online, Nightmare Magazine, and Black Static.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Have confidence in yourself. This isn't even close to a muddy mess.

I'd say make a few minor revisions and you're good to go.

And don't forget to put me on your query list. I'd read this.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

No, no and no

Your query letter should NOT include large blocks of text in italic.

Your query letter should NOT have anything decorative in it, like this pretty blue stripe. (Watch for "image.gif" as an attachment, when you're not sending attachments.) TEST your email on a different computer if you're not sure if this is happening.

Your query letter should NOT be a big bloc O'Text.

Break up paragraphs into 3 or 4 lines, then add a blank line to create white space.
Big blocs o'text are almost impossible to read. Making your query harder to read is
not a good idea.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


Dear Query Shark,

The only thing Walt Dempsy’s father left him, before getting locked up for good, was the ability to take a punch. Which comes in handy when you are the only guy who won't play along in a dying beach town run by vicious drug dealers and dirty money.

I like this. It engages my interest and while my sox are still on my toes, this looks good.

A once epic brawler Walt now spends his nights working a security gig at the hospital, and his mornings flirting with Piper the bartender over breakfast beers. It had been years since he’d had been in a real fight, or since anyone had noticed him at all.

What gives this paragraph heft is that last phrase "since anyone noticed him at all." Right there we know a lot about Walt. In fact, this feels like the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks.

Everything changed the night the nor'easter storm hit and Walt was the sole witness to a deadly car crash. Inside the burning wreckage he finds a man drawing his last breath and a small fortune in drug money. In a desperate moment Walt steals the money from the burning car and sets off a chain of events that force him down a dangerous road filled with drugs, dirty cops, con men, and deranged killers.

I'd change Walt was to Walt is. I have a fondness for queries in the present tense because I think it pumps up the energy, and in a short form like a query it's not too tiring for the reader.

Now we've all seen this plot before. There've been novels, and movies with this. But, because I like the writing here, I'm going to keep reading.

As he struggles to cover his tracks from that night an old flame shows up in town with fresh hell in tow. She was blonde now, and calling herself Eve, but she was still the same beautiful troublemaker from when they were teenagers.

And again She is a blonde now is much better.
And she is still the same.

And the reason I'm glad I kept reading is that lovely turn of phrase "fresh hell in tow."

This is the kind of thing I look for in a query: turns of phrase, word choices that give me confidence that even with a plot I've seen, you're going to write so well I won't be able to put the manuscript down.

Eve had a desperate need for money and the dangerous man he was in his youth to protect her. The dirty money was more than enough to make all her troubles go away. The only problem is he can’t show a dime of it without raising the suspicions of Shudo, the deranged and ruthless drug kingpin, and risking certain death.

Now Walt is faced with an impossible choice: dig up the violent man he used to be and risk blowing the lid off his safe but stagnant life for a shot with the girl who got away, or stay in the shadows and watch his world slowly fade away around him.

And I'm in. At this point, I'm reading pages and PRAYING they're good.
Your query has done her job.

COLD SNAP is a complete, 73,000 word thriller I would describe as "No Country for Old Men" meets "The Town". Thank you for your time and consideration.

Now, if you really wanted to knock my socks off, you'd mention that "The Town" is based on Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves, and then mention that you think it's an example of a perfect novel, which I might have raved about once  or twice

If you've only seen the movie, stop reading right now, and go order the book and read it.

Now back to the query.

This query works not because it's fresh and new but because the writing is good. It catches my attention. There are lovely turns of phrase. 

If the book needs work on the plot that's a whole lot easier than trying to fix the writing.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

#276-revised once

Revision #1

Mira is a thirty-two year old writer in Brooklyn whose past relationship, soul-sucking job, and frequent writer’s block all drive her to drink. This would be very bad except the local bar owner is Tom, a smart, sardonic, self-made man who is easy on the eyes and who looks at Mira in a way that makes her knees buckle. Mira’s past keeps her from acting on her attraction until a beautiful woman walks into the bar and starts hanging on to Tom’s every word. Suddenly, it is no longer easy for Mira to keep her feelings for Tom at arm's length. But Tom has had enough of Mira's push and pull.

This is better than the first iteration, but let's look at what you're doing here: you're using a LOT of cliches. "Soul sucking job" is a good example. Unless your job is an actual dementor (and yes I had to look that up to make sure I was using the right word) this isn't a phrase that sheds much light on things. What makes it soul sucking? The people? The customers? The literary agents who critique your every memo and tweet?  

And "drive her to drink" is another. It's a trite phrase. How much is she drinking? What is she drinking? Is she pouring vodka in her coffee cup at 6am or is she having two old fashioneds at the bar instead of one Shirley Temple?

Details make a story come alive. Right now this is bland. Bland does NOT entice. 

At work, Mira is presented with a distraction - a girl from the neighborhood has disappeared amidst whispers of a local drug ring. Mira starts covering the story but unfortunately her snooping catches the attention of the wrong kind of people. After spotting Mira witnessing a shakedown gone awry, these gang members give her chase making Mira run to the first place that comes to her mind - Tom's bar.

You'll want to ditch that whole first paragraph and start here. Here is where something interesting happens, and that's a whole lot more enticing than trying to suss out what kind of hooch Mira is guzzling and when.

But, honestly, if thugs are after me, my first stop is the local police station, not a bar. You might think about whether it's the first place that comes to mind, or the first place she actually sees. Again, details are what make the story work. 

And it's "give chase" not "give her chase" meaning to chase after her. Give her chase means they're handing her a bank.

While the gang members now lay siege outside, Mira and Tom must figure out how to get past their heated emotions in order to escape and Mira must accept that feelings are not resolved by keeping them at arm's length.

Wait, what?? There's a siege in Brooklyn? At a bar? Call the cops! For starters, how is someone laying siege in this day and age? Well, ok, I've laid siege to my liquor cabinet but I don't think that's what you mean here.

And we've gone from being chased by thugs, to figuring out our emotions? Does this actually make sense when you see it written down like this? (no, it doesn't)  Here's where you need to step outside your writerly self, and read with an objective eye. Does this make sense? Is this how someone would behave? If it's NOT, why are they behaving oddly? If Mira and Tom are reviewing their relationship while being threatened by thugs, there must be a reason it's more important to them. 

THE CHRONICLES OF MANIA is an upmarket women's fiction complete at 70,000 words.

This is better than what you had in the first iteration, but you're still on the wrong side of bland. We also need a better sense of the plot.

What does Mira want? What's keeping her from getting it? What's at stake for her with that desire?

Query #1
It’s the late eighties in New York and Mira is a thirty-two year old single woman living in Brooklyn. She works at a dead end job writing corny ad copy for a living. Her evenings are spent drinking with the old bartender at her local bar and thinking about her past love. She has a strong chemistry with the bar’s owner, Tom but she actively ignores it and refuses to let him come close.

There's nothing technically wrong with this paragraph, but I'd stop reading here and send a form rejection.  The purpose of a query letter is to entice your reader (in this case, me) to read more.

Honestly, Mira sounds like someone I'd actively avoid. 

Think about it: if someone asked you what your book is about, would you tell them what you wrote in this first paragraph?

I have no sense that you love this story and can't wait to tell it.

Also troublesome: why is this set in the 80's? That's practically historical fiction for youngish readers, and for those of us who were actually there, why go back? It hasn't become chic like the 40's or the 20's, and unless you need to have Ronald Reagan or Duran Duran in the book, why?

This has all the hallmarks of a "based on my life" kind of novel. Remember, most lives don't let themselves to well-plotted enticing novels (and thank goodness!)  If you are using events of your life, remember, this is a novel. You get to make stuff up. In fact, you can make it ALL up.

When you hear "not right for my list" this is the kind of thing we mean. It's not grabbing me.

On New Year’s Eve, alone and drunk in her apartment, Mira decides to finally take charge and do what she had always planned to do with her life - she decides to write a book and gives herself one year .

The only thing more painful than writing a novel is reading about someone writing a novel.

But fortunately it doesn't look like Mira's novel is actually a very important part of the plot....

For the next twelve months, we see Mira constantly trying (and mostly failing) to write while having a series of misadventures. Her job duties become more unbearable, she meets Jim Buckley, a persistent drunk who brings disaster wherever he goes, Tom leaves for Italy and comes back with a beautiful girl, and Mira’s neighbor, Lollys, disappears one day raising suspicions about a neighborhood drug ring.

What does this have to do with Mira's novel? It's also a series of events, rather than a plot.
And I'm sure this is just me but a character who is a "persistent drunk" is so unappetizing I don't know where to start. Drunk people are funny if you're also drunk with them. Reading about them, or being around them sober is excruciating.

Through a bizarre twist of events Mira finds herself one night being the witness of a drug dealer’s murder. She is chased by the murderers into Tom’s building where for five nights Mira and Tom stay trapped without a telephone while armed thugs guard the front door.

Wait, what? What happened to the novel? I thought Tom came back from Italy with a girlfriend?

And "bizarre twist of events" leaves me shaken and afraid. It's code for "I'm going to do something awful to these people" or "I'm going to show you what deus ex machina REALLY looks like."  If I'm reading your novel, a twist is great, I love the twists. Bizarre turns of events are where I put the book down and say "yea, not so much."

“The Chronicles of Mania’ is a novel finished at 70,000 words.

The only way to save this query is to energize the writing. You can do that with sentence structure and word choice.  I'll read almost anything if it sounds interesting. Your job is to make this sound interesting.

Right now it's not.
It's not a red hot mess.
It's got the fundamentals, but it doesn't do the job.

Don't be afraid to be bold in your query. Get some sizzle on the page.

Saturday, February 6, 2016


Dear Query Shark,

Blind Trust (fact-based fiction) is complete at 83,000 words.

Right from the start my eyes are rolling. "Fact based fiction" is a HUGE red flag. Limiting your story to what really happened is a choke chain on creativity. If you want to write something factual, it's called narrative non-fiction. If you want to write fiction, don't let facts get in the way. (Of course, you can't make it unbelievable either--that's the art of writing)

There were all those questions from Arthur… damn him and his questions! Life was grand for Ted and Ellen Rivers before their forty year old daughter brought home her latest husband, Arthur Ferguson. Arthur’s ambitious inquisition threatens to upset the family’s blueprint for success. They had more money than they knew what to do with... and they had Max Custer. Ted and Ellen were intoxicated by Max’s astonishing brilliance. He was awash in red carpet clients and espoused that he and his global staff of experts could insure their newly found prosperity would keep the whole family well off for generations to come.

The first two sentences are in the wrong order. Unless we know who Arthur is, the first sentence doesn't make much sense. You're also awash in words here: Ted and Ellen's daughter brings home a new husband who says he can keep them rich for generations to come. Your paragraph has 103 words; my sentence has 20 and is easier to understand.

Arthur dares to challenge the sophisticated professional. He obviously doesn’t appreciate that Max is the expert. Surely, Max must have been an altar boy or maybe even a boy scout before he became an international finance wizard. Arthur claimed to be an accountant, but was for some nebulous reason between jobs. The innocent but colorful lives of Ted and Ellen Rivers are changed forever when Arthur launches his own investigation to expose Max Custer’s skeletons.

At this point I"m too confused to keep reading. I have no idea who the main character is. I have no idea what's at stake. I have no sense of where or when the story takes place.

Countless unsuspecting victims have been similarly duped. A writer friend of mine was also seduced by one of these financial experts. The proceeds from her best seller vanished. Suddenly she was broke. She described it as being mugged, or even T-boned, but was too ashamed to write the story. This eye opening revelation should appeal to a broad audience, because nearly everybody knows somebody that has experienced a similar humiliation.

None of that belongs in a query for a novel.

This is Ted and Ellen’s story; a dramatized version of actual events. I personally researched every intimate detail of the ominous scheme Max hatched. In fact, I was there. Names were changed, but actual documents and much of the ostentatious verbiage and techniques that were used by Max (and his “global staff of experts”) is included. Ted and Ellen were from another generation and had more fight and resilience than anyone expected. While not victorious, they were not entirely defeated either.

It sounds like you're writing an expose here, not a novel. I see this a lot from people (and friends of people) who have been victimized by some scurrilous ne'er do well.

What you're forgetting is that the story must come first. Accuracy in relating events and dialogue is not something I give a whit about in novels. I care about plot and story.

Blind Trust is rife with events and details so bizarre it is sometimes hard to believe they are really true.

You know that truism "truth is stranger than fiction?" There's a reason it's a truism, and this is it. What you don't realize is this is NOT a selling point for a novel. When I read a novel I want to believe it's true, not think it isn't. That's why you get to make stuff up: so it sounds authentic.

I realize this seems odd, particularly to people enamoured of facts and truth, but often the things that sound most authentic and illuminate points of darkness are in fact made up.

After returning from Vietnam, I earned a B.S. in Business Administration and have had an extensive career in corporate and forensic accounting. I have been published in the Birmingham Business Journal, The Smoking Poet and CJ’s Writer’s Blog. I live in Wisconsin with my wife and two dogs in our ongoing 1890 farmhouse restoration.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

This is a mess. Are you sure you read the QueryShark archives?

Who is the main character? What does s/he want? What's keeping him from getting it?
If you are intent on telling this story as a warning to others, you might think about a different form. Murder mysteries are seldom seen as warnings not to be killed.

Dupe novels seldom keep people from being duped.

If you want to write a story using these events as your inspiration, don't stay wedded to the facts. It's fiction, you get to make it all up.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

#274-revised 1x


Dear QueryShark,
If the Ancients knew what Blackwater had been through, they would have asked someone else to save the world. The Ancients, a race of Phoenixian beings born of fire, and until their fall, thought to be immortal, had prophesied that a man born of water would come to save the world from Chaos and its minions. 
I like this. It sets up some expectations for Blackwater.  You don't need to explain the Ancients in the query. Keep the focus on Blackwater.

Blackwater knew the words of the prophecy all to well. He had been forced to memorize them as a child.
Blackwater is was a Key Master, the last Key Master, able to travel anywhere in the blink of an eye. All the other Key Masters have been where (you mean were here, not where) hunted down and killed, their power thought to (too) great to be allowed to exist. Blackwater was is walking death; his powers, coupled with the training he received from his father, made him one of the deadliest men in the world. 

Present tense provides an energy to your query that can really help.
So Blackwater IS, not Blackwater was, made him/make him
Now tucked away from the rest of the world in a forest where time moves much slower, Blackwater wonders what good power is if you cannot save the ones that mattered most. So many had died trying to save him. Blackwater’s father taught him that all life was precious, that he should preserve life and that he should not kill, unless absolutely necessary and in the defense of his own life.

And here you just fall off the story line in a big ol splat. "ones who matter most" "so many died" are all so non-specific as to be uninteresting. Uninteresting is death in a query.
And in fact, none of this really matters; you get to the gist of the book below.

Yet all he wanted to do was kill, kill those who had taken the lives of so many of the people he cared about. Doing so would disgrace his father's memory, and that was something he was not willing to do. So here he stood, still unable to preserve the life of anyone but himself. 
In a twist of fate Blackwater finds himself in the company of the Ancient forest god Arbor. Arbor reveals to Blackwater that the world is dying. Blackwater learns that the only way to save the world lies beneath it, in the underground city of Taenaria. The city is thousands of leagues from the forest where he now resides. In order to save the world of Tuarian, Blackwater must make a Keyway and travel to the Eastern Reaches, down into the depths of Taenaria.

I really can't tell you how much I hate the idea of a forest god named Arbor. It's like naming a dog Dog. It's funny if you're trying to be ironic. It's not really very funny here.  
In Taenaria, Blackwater’s choices go from bad to worse, when he must weigh his life against his newly found companions. If Blackwater saves his companions at the cost of his life, the prophecy might never be fulfilled and Chaos will reign, if he lets them die, the world will lose the only chance it has against the Chaos that is coming.

Because we know nothing about the companions I'm all for letting them die die die. In other words, I need something here to make me care about them. Are they sharks? Unicorn sharks? Let them live.
Fair maidens? Yea, not so much. Fair maidens are the source of much of the world's troubles.

The Key Masters Chronicles: Book I, The Last Key Master, complete at 100,843 words, is Science Fiction Fantasy. 
Thank you for your Cconsideration.

I'm still seeing a LOT of typos here.

Typos like this are just death in a query because you're not doing this for stylistic reasons, you're just making mistakes. When I see things like too/to, and where/were I know I'll find them in the manuscript. 

You simply must figure out how to handle this problem before you query further. No matter how enticing your novel sounds, this kind of mistake will mean form rejections.
 This is a vast improvement from the initial query, but you've got some problems to fix here.

Dear Query Shark,

(1) I don’t know if I can save her. I’m not sure I can save myself. I have failed so many times.My friends, my family, they all had a chance to live but I was never fast enough, never strong enough.

Because you've started with "I", my impression is you are talking about yourself.  This sounds like a memoir.

(2) Now they're gone, taken from me, their lives no longer bound to this dying land. Yet I remain, why, for what? To fulfill some Prophecy spoken four-thousand seasons ago.

Now it sounds like a memoir with religious overtones. This is where I stop reading. Two paragraphs and eight sentences. You're done.

This is a textbook illustration of why you do not write a query in the voice of your character. It's confusing. And when I am confused, I stop reading. I don't stop to try to figure it out. I don't skim past this to see what comes next. I stop reading, and go on to the next query. You'd get a form rejection from me; you'll get a vast silence from agents who practice No Response Means No.

(3) The Ancients couldn't possibly know me, or what I’ve been through, if they did they would’ve asked someone else to save the world.

When you revise this, you should consider starting at (3). Use the character's name instead of "me" and "I".  I like the phrase "if they did, they would have asked someone else to save the world."  That sentence snags my attention. I'm interested to see why someone else should have been asked to save the world.  (Too bad I wouldn't see it with this version of course)

Blackwater was a Key Master. Being blessed with the power to fashion magical keys, Blackwater could conjure Keyways, to travel from place to place in the blink of an eye. All the Key Masters that traversed the vast land of Taurian, have been hunted down and killed, their craft falling into myth and legend, yet Blackwater, the last Key Master, still lives.

You've got a lot of words here to say some pretty simple things: Blackwater can travel from place to place in the blink of an eye because he's a Key Master. The last Key Master; all the others have been hunted down and killed.

See the difference? You don't need all this information in the query. I'm going to assume that most of the backstory, and world building, will happen in the novel. Right now I'm keen to see whether you've got a plot, and whether the writing is taut.

Also, most queries are written in present tense even if the novel is not. Present tense gives you a boost of energy and verve here:  Blackwater IS a Key Master.

Aida cannot remember her name, nor where she comes from, or how she came to be with child. Confused and afraid, she stumbles into Blackwater’s forest. Aida is taken by the Taenarians who wish to steal the magic her child carries. Blackwater must now choose whether to use his Key Magic to rescue her, or watch another innocent lose their life because he did nothing to prevent it. Traveling into the depths of Taenaria, Blackwater seeks to rescue Aida, whose womb carries the essence of rebirth and the key to saving this dying world.

oh yuck yuck yuck. Here is where I lose interest very quickly. We've gone from something that looked appealing "wrong choice to saving the world" to saving some sort of fecund damsel in distress. (I'm really over the whole damsel in distress thing, but that's probably just me)

You've set up Blackwater's choice but there's nothing at stake. He saves her and what bad thing happens to him? He doesn't save her, and what worse thing will happen? Unless Blackwater has skin in the game, it's just a series of events with no tension.

Even without the problems in (1) and (2) I'd say no to this query because there's no sense of what's at stake. 

Also notice you dropped those evil Taenarians in without any explanation, and those poor doddering Ancients from (3) have disappeared.

If you think of a query as a piece of flash fiction it might help.  It has to hold together as a complete entity. You don't have to spell everything out (your reader will intuit things) but the query needs to be seamless. Mentioning a character only once leaves a gap. Seamless = no gaps.

The Key Masters Chronicles: Book I, The Last Key Master, complete at 111,843 words, is commercial fiction.

It's not commercial fiction; it's SFF.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The first thing to do is make sure your novel has something at stake. Even if you fix the query letter, it won't do you any good to send me a novel with nothing at stake. What's at stake for Blackwater needs to be clear in the first 20 pages or so. Generally I'll give a requested full about 50 pages to hook me, but you really want that to happen as soon as possible.

Once you've got the novel in shape, revise the query to remove the character's POV, and tighten up the paragraphs. Use present tense.

Saturday, January 16, 2016


 When writing the query I had realized there was no possible way to write a succinct summary for so many timelines and character lines for (what I thought) was a finished 190,000 word novel. then, BAM, I realized, holy crap!

 Easily understood afterwards, of course, but, once I separated the timelines and characters, splitting and parsing it between seven (future) books to force it under the 100,000 limit- It all made sense.

 Hindsight is a dork we all know. But it took the Query Shark and many edits to realize what I had to do. Thank you for that. 
Dear Query Shark:

A seasoned captain. A passionate coman. Their duties performed from necessity, their choices from personality.

This doesn't tell me anything. It's the portentous voiceover in a movie trailer or the tag line on a book cover.

It doesn't serve any purpose in a query and worse, with coman, it's confusing. I don't have a clue what coman means. It sounds like a furry creature in a forest, maybe kin to a koala.

What appears to them in the languishing days of mineral extraction will test a captain's resolve for stability. It will test a coman's choices of personal humility.
And this is more of the same. Except now I'm thinking the coman is perhaps a robot of some kind?

 Prematurely set back towards Earth, Captain Quanta Strohm Lathif, a dutiful and proud veteran of Our World's Pride Fleet, and Coman Whittman Stahl, the captain's energetic subordinate, the crew of ship Yarppah bring with them an unfilled minera hull; three less baybots; Myryan, a first contact species, who has succumbed to his wounds in their botbay, and his trailing Avayrian ship bouncing off their tail.
There are 65words in this sentence. If you can speak them aloud without drawing breath, I'd think you're part fish. A sentence in a query should be fewer than 20 words as a general guideline--you should be able to say the whole sentence in one breath. Short form work like query letters benefit from succinct sentences.

In addition you have FIVE named characters in ONE sentence. The CAPS here are to emphasize this is too many. (The five are: Captain QSL, Coman WS; the ship; the first contact alien, his ship)

You've already told us Captain QSL is a "seasoned veteran". You don't need to repeat it. Do we need to know the name of the fleet? Do we need to know the name of the ship? (Hint: no)

You've got words I don't recognize: minara; baybot, botbay. Obviously in science fiction you'll have new words but it's really helpful if you keep those to a minimum in the query letter cause you don't have room to provide much context. And baybot/botbay is just begging for confusion in the novel, let alone the query.

In SF (and historical fiction) novels (let alone queries) you want to make double dog sure your prose is as lean as possible. Include only that which is absolutely necessary because you've got to save room for all the world-building, and providing context so your reader can intuit what botbay, baybot and minara means.

I sort of get the idea here: there's ship coming home with aliens on board.  The only thing I'm wondering about is why they're coming home early (a question you don't address at all.)

 On Earth, Jerrison Glanders, an appointed OWP Watcher under the Minders, languishes day to day in his office. As sudden as his coffee turns over on his desk and spills to the floor, his demeaning minute by minute transtanking of OWP's captains peaks and emulsifies from his life's journey into becoming a Watcher and the personal change he must now follow.
I literally do not understand what "his demeaning minute by minute transtanking of OWP's captains peaks and emulsifies from his life's journey into becoming a Watcher and the personal change he must now follow." means. This is death in a query. If I'm skimming along and I don't understand a sentence, I assume I was reading too quickly. I go back to the start of the paragraph and read again slowly. If I don't get it the second time, I'll look for things like a missing word, a misspelling, some sort of error that will allow me to figure out the sentence. If I come up empty on the third time  I stop reading.

In addition we now have two more names (Glanders, Minders) to remember. This makes seven. That's four if not five too many.

 Looking for change and leniency of both himself and those captains, Mr. Glanders sets out for a deal of reciprocity beginning an off Earth search for the scheming clandestine habitual needs of Senior Watcher R. M. Fahreel, who's multi-world rock collection is as pertinent and bonded to his personality as a rattle and blanket is to a child.

And there's eight. 
And bonded to his personality doesn't make sense. A good metaphor illuminates something, it doesn't make me try to figure out how you can bond something to an abstract concept.

 It is still a pang upon my gritted teeth to dispel and distill within this query letter from moving beyond a single page and flagrantly slipping into the entirety of a second novel.

This sentence is gibberish.  I hope you can see that when you look at it again. 

 My science fiction novel, CASIMIR LURE, lies in a future where there is no dystopia, only the political and scientific push that we as a species look to attain. The novel is completed (foil your prime limits) at 95,000 words. the first book of a six novel series, THE CASIMIR EFFECT, is in the works for continued enticement with an additional 130,000 words of story and additional character development within.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

I've read some long SF novels in my day. I've even requested fulls for novels that clocked in at 190K. I'm not intimidated by length and (given the length of City on Fire by Garth Risk Halberg, a BEA Book buzz novel in 2015) I'm confident long novels are making a comeback.

The problem here is not the length. The problem is I don't understand what you're talking about. I don't have any idea of what problem the captain faces. I don't understand who the main character is, or, if there are multiple focal characters,  what the precipitating incident is. 
Charles Dickens is the master of long-ass novels with multiple focal characters. If you consider Bleak House as an example, Dickens sets the reader down in London, and then describes the lawsuit that is the precipitating incident for the novel:

Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.

So, yes, it's entirely possible to have a long-ass book described in 221 well-chosen, elegant words.  And if you say scoff and say "yea, well that's Dickens!" all I say to you is: that's exactly what you want to aim for.

And if you're thinking it can't be done in this day and age, and in your specific category, well, here's Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin:

Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.

Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.

The precipitating incident: trouble is brewing, the cold is returning. There's not a lot of specifics here but you get the sense of the novel: it's a grand adventure.   And notice: only ONE made up word: wildling, but the reader can easily intuit they are wild beasts/men/creatures of some sort.

As your query stands right now it would be rejected after the second paragraph but even if you polish this up, I worry about the novel. Remember, the purpose of a query is to entice me to read the novel.  A perfect query, with pages that go splat isn't any more useful to you than a bad query.

Time to get some outside eyeballs on the manuscript. A good crit group or beta reader is probably the best next step rather than simply revising and resending the query. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

#272-Revised 1x

Revision #1
Dear QueryShark,

Drew Nolan knew cooperation could make his life easier, but only if he betrayed everything that mattered to him.  Day after day, he entered an interrogation room and faced Ceked Mirko.  Day after day he sparred, verbally and mentally, with that cold, arrogant bastard.  Then the interrogations got worse, then the torture began.  How long could he, or his shipmates, hold out?

Drew Had visited a dozen star systems as a young officer, but nothing prepared him for the bitter reality of Kasdech.  He knew the cramped confines of starships, not the mud of planets.  Yet, after the Kasdech attack, that is exactly where he finds himself; locked in a frozen prison camp beside his fellow survivors.
At this point, we don't know anything more about the plot than we did after the first sentence. You're giving us backstory and set up. Get to what's at stake here!

War between Kasdech and Earth is coming, and Mirko knows it.  Interrogation is his business, and he will stop at nothing to extract the information his superiors require.  Drew has learned much in war, but one lesson stands above the rest: you take care of your crew.  He isn’t ready for command—he is too young, too unproven—but his crew needs him, he is all they have left.
This still isn't plot. What's going to happen? War? Ok. What's at stake? What bad thing will happen to Drew if he betrays everything that matters to him? What worse thing will happen if he doesn't?

In the camp, under Mirko’s ungentle hands, is only suffering and misery.  In escape is the smallest hint of hope, the tiny chance to save this crew and bring home a warning.  Even if escape’s likeliest outcome is death, some things are worth dying for.
We still don't have a sense of the plot here at all.

THE VOLGA INCIDENT is science fiction, complete at 120,000 words, and is my first novel.

Thank you for you time and consideration

There's a formula for getting the basics of your plot written down. 

I copied this from my handout on effective query letters that I've posted a couple times:

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 an old, almost forgotten blues musician
            3c when he is suddenly, inexplicably arrested for a murder he could not have committed.
            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: do THIS or do THAT

            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 will help you distill your plot to the essentials. You need the essentials of Act One, not a rundown of the entire plot.

 You're going backwards here.
the first query was actually more effective than this one.
That kind of thing can happen. Don't let it damage your confidence.
Just look at the original query again, and use the good parts (there were a lot) and improve the parts that need it. 


Dear QueryShark:

Drew Nolan knew cooperation could make his life easier, but only if he betrayed everything that mattered to him. Day after day he entered an interrogation room and faced Ceked Mirko. Day after day he sparred, verbally and mentally, with that cold, ruthless bastard. Then the interrogations got worse, then the torture began. How long could he, or his shipmates, hold out?

This paragraph does something quite amazing: it uses my own assumptions to surprise me. The first four sentences allow me to assume that Drew Nolan is conducting the interrogation. I'm used to the good guy being the one in charge in an interrogation room (one too many crime novels!)  Yes, that first line gives us a clue, but it's not until the last line that I thought "oh! Ceked Mirko is the one running the show."

This is a Really Good Thing to do in a query because it engages my interest from the get-go.
I'm keen to read on and find out what's happening here.

Drew had come to Kasdech a rising young naval officer on a simple first contact mission. Over the course of twenty-four hours he had seen his captain killed, his ship destroyed, and his few fellow survivors locked beside him in a frozen prison camp. He wasn’t ready to be in command—he was too young, too unproven—but his crew needed him, he was all they had left. Drew had learned much in war, and one lesson stood above all else: you took care of your crew.

Ok, so we get the larger picture of what's going on here.

Mirko would will stop at nothing to break the prisoners, he he's proven that, and Drew refused refuses to let that happen. In the camp, under MIrko’s Mirko's ungentle hands, lay only suffering and misery. In escape lay the smallest hint of hope, the tiny chance to get his men home. Even if escape’s likeliest end was death, some things were worth dying for.

You've gone from what's happened before to what's going to unfold in the novel. Change from past tense to reflect that, as per the first sentence mark up.

Why Mirko is trying to "break the prisoners."  They're in a prison camp, so my expectation is simply that they're being held prisoner.  This interrogation and "breaking" leads me to think something more is at stake. You say "cooperation will make things easier" in paragraph one. Spelling out what this cooperation is would be a good idea.

THE VOLGA INCIDENT is military science fiction, complete at 120,000 words, and is my first novel.

I don't get much sense of the science fiction angle here other than the names, "first contact" and "his ship." I'm not suggesting you drown the query in world building at all, but some hints would be good.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

As it stands right now, I'd probably read the pages. The pages will need to drop us right smack dab in to the middle of something happening, and give us a sense of the world these people are inhabiting very soon.

Polish up, resend. You're almost there.

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

#270-Revised 2x

Revision #2

Dear QueryShark:

His dead mother's voice stabs Ramanya in his ears and wakes him: "I'm alive. So is your sister. We were not in that pile of burning bodies in our village. You left too soon. Come home."

Home is Burma, where Ramanya is wanted by the government for war crimes. Home means death if he returns and is captured.

So, why is he going. More important, why does his mom want him too? Surely she knows the cost of his capture and doesn't want him killed?

Ramanya now lives in Thailand as a Bhuddist monk.
Hearing his mother's voice was just a random dream, right?  Or was it something more?

Something more, says the strange man in the red silk shirt who appears at the temple. The man says Ramanya's family really is alive and hiding in Burma. He says Ramanya's mother is dying and she sent the man to Thailand to find him.

Again, why?

That same day armed rebels stage a violent takeover of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok. Hostages are taken-- a standoff with the Thai military.  Tensions between the two countries rise. Armies mobilize and  head toward the borders.

Ramanya and two of his closest confidants, a British priest and an American teacher, have about 48 hours to get to Three Pagodas Pass and sneak Ramanya back in his country before the borders are completely sealed.

 Washed out bridges, broken roads, Military checkpoints, corrupt cops, Burmese bounty hunters: those are just some of the many dangers as they travel through smuggling routes deep in the jungles and mountains of Thailand.

This sounds pretty tepid to me. Hell, half that stuff is what people face in their daily lives in some countries. There's no sense of tension here because nothing's at stake.

All while trying to get --- Home.

"Don't Go, Ramanya" is currently _______ words. I'm a first time novelist. I'm querying you because of your interest in commercial fiction.

Thank you,

 This is certainly better than the previous iterations. Much more organized.
The problem is still that nothing is at stake. What bad thing happens to Ramanya if he fails to get home? What worse thing will happen if he does?  

Without a sense of tension, this is too bland to engage my interest. 

I was a bit surprised the stir my use of the terms "literary thriller/literary fiction/upmarket fiction" created as those are terms I see agents use to describe the projects they are looking for.

This book is not straight genre. It incorporates elements of a traditional thriller but is focused more on the characters. So if you have time, any advice about how to "categorize" one's story would be great.

Revision #1
Dear Query Shark,

Ramanya is a former Burmese rebel soldier now living as a Buddhist monk in Bangkok, Thailand. One morning his dead mother appears to him in a dream, telling him she will see him soon. Later that same morning, a strange man follows him through the city streets back to his temple and tells Ramanya learns that his family he believed was murdered sixteen months ago, is actually alive and in hiding back in his country. Ramanya is wanted for war crimes by the junta ruling Burma, so a trip home to search for them would result in certain death if he were captured.

Why would he search for them? They're in hiding; he's in hiding. What is so urgent he needs to go find them?  What does he have to find or do for them that he will risk his own death?

That day, a group of armed rebels takes over the Burmese (Myanmar) embassy in downtown Bangkok. The ensuing hostage crisis (a true event) gives Ramanya only about 48-hours before the military completely seals the Thai-Burmese border. He seeks advice from two of his closest confidants: Father Bob Hanlan, a British priest and political agitator whose Catholic relief organization sponsors Ramanya and other refugees at his temple, as well as from his English language teacher Michael Shaw, an American employed by Father Bob's group. 

That sentence is 47 words long. Focus on the information a reader needs to know right now, as s/he reads the query. You don't need a full bio for every character at the query level. You don't have room for it either.

 And the larger problem. Why is he asking these two guys for advice? Advice on whether he should go or not? If he doesn't, there's no novel. So we know he is going to go, thus all this asking advice info is unneeded.

Besides, this makes Ramanya sound like he's a child. If he's a grown man with a sense of urgent mission, you think he's asking anyone for advice? Maybe for where to buy a grenade launcher but that's about it.

However, each of those men has tragedies in their pasts and secrets they are hiding: Father Bob is wanted by the Burmese military for his role instigating a violent street protest in Rangoon. After Bob is followed and attacked during a nighttime motorcycle-taxi chase, a crooked Thai police captain uses the event to blackmail him: Father Bob must either pay him for protection or he'll turn Bob over to Burmese intelligence. 

 We don't need to know all this right now.

Michael is a popular teacher who has been working at the temple, but he is struggling with addiction and on the run from legal and personal problems in the States. After a public meltdown on the streets of Bangkok, Michael realizes he has hit "rock bottom". He seizes on the opportunity to help Ramanya, his favorite student, in a desperate attempt to pull himself out of his spiral of ever-growing isolation and self-destruction. 

We don't need to know all this either.

Accompanied by two friends, Ramanya, They takes off on a journey through the exotic and sometimes dangerous countryside of Thailand toward Three Pagodas Pass to get Ramanya back into his country and reunited with his family, all while trying to outrun the bounty hunters, set loose by the corrupt Thai cop, who are closing in on Father Bob.

this is the gist of the novel and you've reduced it to 29 words. Bland words. Fewer words than you use to describe Father Bob. "Exotic and sometimes dangerous" doesn't give us any flavor at all.

You're focused on the wrong thing here. You're so busy talking about the characters you've forgotten the plot.  Why is Ramanya so intent on getting back to his family?

I also get no sense of Burma or Thailand here. Not in the descriptions, not in your word choices. 

I know you said you were focused on character, but PLOT is why we'll care about what happens to these people. You've got to have plot, here in the query, to be enticing.

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 1999-2001 Lightwave published four of my stories. In 2000, a much earlier version of my website was named "Top Five Literary Sites" by Yahoo/Pulp Eternity. An unproduced screenplay I wrote was a finalist in the Academy Awards Nicholl Fellowship.

These pub credits are 15 years old. Do you have anything more recent? Outdated pub credits don't help you here.

I’ve reached out to queried you because of your interest in upmarket fiction.
Be plainspoken. Say what you mean.

Thanks so much for taking the time to consider this.

Take care,

To answer your questions at the start of the query:
Agents use those terms "upmarket fiction" and "literary thriller" to describe what they're looking for, sure. Your novel has to be one or the other or neither. You used both terms in your original query. As far as I can tell here, it's actually neither.  It's more like a quest or adventure novel. It's certainly not literary. That makes it commercial fiction, which is a very good thing cause almost every agent in the world looks at commercial fiction.

Revise, resend.


Original query
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 Clich├ę 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.