Monday, September 22, 2008

Let's Review

Q: I heard about your blog at a writer's conference this weekend. I'd like to send you a query but I absolutely do not want it posted. Can you guarantee that?


A: This blog does not post queries that come to my agency. Ever.

This blog posts queries from writers who address them specifically to Query Shark and are asking for the query letter to be critiqued.

Two entirely separate things. Queries to the agency are not fodder for this blog unless they are resubmitted by the writer and addressed specifically to the Shark.

Any questions?

Monday, September 15, 2008

#80

Dear Query Shark:

Having found writers like X and Y on your list of authors, I hope you'll consider the mystery I Don't Do Windows for representation.

Having found writers is a terrible start. Short, declarative sentences: I hope you'll consider (title) for representation. I'm querying because you represent X and Y.

While I've redacted the two names here, let me take this opportunity to stand on my soapbox about "because you represent so-and-so you'll be interested in me."

First, get the names right. I don't represent anyone named Y. I'm guessing it's a typing mistake but still, this is something to triple check.

I also don't represent X anymore, and X hasn't been on my list of clients for more than two years. That's sloppy research. It's a fact of agency life that clients come and go, but if I haven't sold anything for an author in two plus years, that person is NOT the best choice for a comparison. My recent sales are on my website; most are listed at Publishers Marketplace. THOSE are the ones to use for comparison.

None of that really matters though. I overlook all of it because I don't really give a rodent's rear end about why you query. Some agents do though, so don't mess this up by being careless.

I Don’t Do Windows continues the popular tradition of smart-mouthed female sleuths(period) , but Kay Brushett has no intention of spending nights eating in her car, checking out suspicious noises in dark basements, or peering through windows.

Topic sentences that run for three lines are too long. This is the place for punchy, attention getting concise prose. You'd do well to ditch this and start here:

Brushett inherited her agency and quickly discovered she was totally unsuited to traditional private investigations. Instead, this detective is a child of the digital age. Dragged into a murder investigation that started as a simple domestic surveillance of a cheating husband, Brushett faces increasingly immediate danger when she accidently records proof of earlier murders. Unfortunately for Brushett, not all of her digital tactics fit neatly within the law, alienating her from local law enforcement just when she could most use their co-operation. Her fears for her own safety will resonate with readers -- and send her back to the illegal, but, necessary tools that may keep her ahead of a smart killer.

This doesn't hold together logically. She doesn't want to peer into windows etc paired with accidentally records don't match. And what "digital tactics" do you mean? Recording? She could be carrying around a reel to reel tape recorder in her panties from that phrase. Be specific.

Her fears for her own safety will resonate with readers--what? That's called suspense, and it's part and parcel of any good crime novel. Saying your main character faces danger is like saying the words are written in English; obvious to the point that by mentioning it you beg for a sardonic and sarcastic response. This is NOT what you want here.

Not only a complete 95,000 word novel to appeal to fans of the cozy and lighter procedurals, I Don’t Do Windows is every woman’s DIY guide to finding out what her guy really does when he’s not with her!

This is meant to be funny I'm sure, but it misses the mark.

Procedurals usually mean police procedurals and a police officer is the main character. That's not what you described earlier.

While I Don't Do Windows is a first mystery, my published non-fiction includes pop culture titles (redacted but quite extensive). My day job is contributing writer / editor / publisher of (redacted) which was started from scratch in 2000 and enjoys a loyal readership.

Thank you for your time and consideration! (I see my campaign to make this the correct closing on all query letters is working. Excellent!)

Sincerely

The writing is enough to make me say no even if there was a more compelling description of the plot. Most agents see ONLY your query letter so you've GOT to make it energetic and enticing. No ass-backwards sentence constructions unless you really mean it (ie having found writers like X and Y on your list; not only a complete novel). Subject, verb, clause. There's a lot to be said for plain, simple, elegant writing.

Form rejection.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Housekeeping

One query per person.
Don't resend if you don't see it posted.
If I received it, I sent you an email.
Sending it more than once doesn't move you any closer to getting on the blog. In fact, I just delete the duplicates, and throw the sole remaining email to the back of the line.

If you send queries for more than one project, I delete them all and email you to send back ONE. Your choice.

There are almost 400 emails in the pen. Even if I did four a day, every day, for three months, I'd still be behind. Look at the dates on the posts and it's more like four a week.

You don't have to have your specific query critiqued to benefit from this so don't write to me begging either. The Tin Man isn't the only one here on the road to Kansas with no heart.

#79

Dear Query Shark,

Have you ever peeked into someone else‚s medicine cabinet?

Or gotten a little thrill when you‚ve found yourself alone in another person‚s private space, like your boss‚s office after hours or your host‚s bedroom when you‚ve taken a wrong turn on the way to the bathroom?

Have you ever tingled with excitement as you watched the main character of a spy movie riffle through a cabinet drawer taking pictures of its contents, wishing the whole time it was you holding the tiny camera shaped like a pen?

You've taken up three paragraphs to describe one thing. Overkill. Get to the point.

Come on, you know you have. But the difference between Katie Tremaine and you is that this particular twenty-nine-year-old accountant can‚t control her urges to sneak around like a cat burglar or pretend to be James Bond. Katie is addicted to snooping around places she shouldn‚t be the way other people are addicted to cigarettes, chocolate cake or gambling, but there is nothing Katie can do for her particular jones short of joining the CIA or turning to a life of crime ˆ and she‚s really not into the whole danger, life-threatening thing.


So, I see that last sentence and think: how many other 56 word sentences are in this book? And that's it. I look at that and all I can see is "this is gonna need work." If you were describing something I'd never seen before it might be different but you've got a snooper (a tired trope) and the prospect of a lot of editing. I'd stop reading right here and say no thanks. Yes this is unfair; yes I might miss something. That's all true. It's still exactly what I'd do.

Assuming she will forever keep her semi-illicit urges under wraps, Katie is shocked when her friend Bernie, a private investigator, uncovers her proclivities and immediately grasps the usefulness of Katie talents. Bernie offers Katie the opportunity to make $5,000 retrieving a valuable piece of jewelry for one of his socialite clients from her ex-husband‚s estate. But when both the client and the ex wind up murdered, it‚s handsome police detective John Flynn who discovers Katie‚s involvement in the case and that her fingerprints are all over both crime scenes ˆ and Katie soon wishes she‚d taken up basket weaving instead of burglarizing.

There's a fundamental failure of logic here. Snooping doesn't mean sneak thief. If she's stealing stuff, you need to mention it in the first paragraph. And you'll want to go easy on the "only difference" cause I may have been known to open a medicine cabinet but I've never actually tried to steal the host's tiara.

Please consider reviewing my 85,000-word mystery novel The Taker. Thank you for your time and attention,as I know both are valuable. Yea well yours are too, let's not get all gushy and stuff.

And "reviewing" isn't what I do. Michiko reviews. I consider. I read. I fling myself at work I love. I do not review.

Sincerely,


Don't you love all those weird ass punctuation marks? Yea, me neither. It doesn't stop me from reading your query, but if you are obsessive about this kind of thing you need to figure out how to make it stop. Commenters here will have good advice about it too, I'm sure.

#78-Revised 3x



THIRD REVISION


Dear QS,

Three thousand years ago, Loki, the Norse God of Mischief, created a game called The Social Experiment in which two mortals are selected to partake in a firsthand historical game of "What if?" One is instructed to preserve history; the other, to change it. The game's intent, however, is not to affect history or alter the future; though history can be shifted and the future can be changed, The Social Experiment was devised to provide the gods with greater insight into the human condition.

For this particular iteration, Loki selects an unsuspecting high school sophomore, Elena Fantino, to preserve the fates. Loki transports her to Rome, 44 B.C., tells her the rules of the game, and disappears. To win the game, to return to the home she knows, Elena must ensure that the following questions go unanswered:



What if Julius Caesar hadn't been killed by Brutus?

What if Anne Boleyn had drowned in her youth?

What if Pierre Picaud – Alexandre Dumas' real life Edmond Dantès – hadn't been framed by his friends?



The Social Experiment is a 45,000 word young-adult novel that begins and ends in high school. In between, Elena travels to ancient Rome, medieval England, and Napoleonic France. Difficult choices await her at each destination: letting Julius Caesar die would be much easier if he didn't have a strong resemblance to her father; saving Anne Boleyn wouldn't be hard at all if she didn't bear a striking similarity to Elena's high school nemesis; allowing Pierre Picaud to be named a spy wouldn't be so bad if he weren't such a gallant man. However, if Elena fails to preserve history, she will be stuck in a time and place far different than present day Manhattan.



The completed manuscript is available upon request. Thanks for your time and consideration,


Hot damn. This works. Nice revision!


---


REVISION

Dear Query Shark,

There is a game played amongst the gods called The Social Experiment. Imagine it as a grand game of "What if?"


What if Julius Caesar hadn't been killed by Brutus?

What if Anne Boleyn had drowned in her youth?

What if Pierre Picaud – Alexandre Dumas' real life Edmond Dantès – hadn't been framed by his friends?


Elena Fantino is about to play her first game of historical "What if?", courtesy of Loki, the Norse God of Mischief. To win the game, to ensure her fate, the above questions must go unanswered. Straightforward enough, but then the game begins. Letting Julius Caesar die would be much easier if he didn't have a strong resemblance to her father. Saving Anne Boleyn wouldn't be hard at all if she didn't bear a striking similarity to Elena's high school nemesis. Allowing Pierre Picaud to be named a spy wouldn't be so bad if he weren't such a gallant man.

To win the game, to ensure her fate, the above questions must go unanswered. This is too generic to mean much. What happens if she does save Caesar? Does she die? Develop zits? Become an indentured servant in the Shark Tank?

This is a key element of a good query letter: why do any of these events or choices matter. Without the answer to the question "so what" the response is 'ho hum' and that's not what you're looking for unless you are the group sing leader at the Mustang Ranch.


The Social Experiment is a 45,000 word young-adult novel that begins and ends in high school. In between, Elena must decide whether winning the game is more important than doing the right thing. Loki provides obstacles at every turn to make sure that she's as conflicted as possible; he's the God of Mischief, after all, and nothing delights him more than hearing his human guinea pigs squeal.

What is the right thing? Drowning Anne Boleyn? Hmmm.

Is Loki a major character? Having him toy with humans just cause he can is pretty boring. It's like a serial killer who is pure evil. Nuance is interesting; complex motivation is interesting. "Cause I want to" ...not so much.

If you would like to see the manuscript or a synopsis, I can send it at your convenience. Thanks for your time and consideration,


This isn't compelling yet. Form rejection.
-----------------------------------------

ORIGINAL
Dear Query Shark,

Skylar Fox often wishes she were a normal girl going to a normal high school. Her father's a mob boss, her only friend's the DA's son, and she's the laughing stock of Gracemont Prep, school to Manhattan's rich and famous. If that wasn't bad enough, Sky's just been selected by the Norse God of Mischief to partake in a historical game of "What if?" known as The Social Experiment.

You've got WAY too much going on here. The fact that she's the daughter of a mob boss and her pal is the DA's son (problematic at best, reeks of device) doesn't have anything to do with the Norse God of Mischief sending her off on Bill & Ted's Incredible Adventure part deus ex machina.


What if Caesar hadn't been killed by Brutus? What if Anne Boleyn had drowned in her youth? What if The Count of Monte Cristo were a romance? (I'm pretty sure the Count of Monte Cristo is a novel, not a historical figure; the person most closely resembling the story is named Pierre Picaud)

Sky must travel through history to ensure that these questions remain unanswered; she wins if the fates are kept. Her friend, Finneas Huckleberry Finn, (who?) wins if the fates are changed.

History, unfortunately, has a striking similarity to Sky's modern day existence. (I don't understand what that means) Choices that seemed easy - allowing Caesar to die, saving Anne Boleyn - are far more difficult than she'd imagined. (why?) Worst of all, Finn is hiding a terrible secret that could forever destroy their friendship. (He's Luke's father?)

Terrible secrets smack of melodrama. There's just no way to have that phrase in a query letter and have it taken seriously. Be specific. What's the problem. What's he hiding. You can tone down the melodrama and it will actually be more dramatic.

The Social Experiment is a 45,000 word young-adult story that begins and ends in high school.

You do all this in 45,000 words? My left eyebrow took the elevator to the top of my beehive 'do on that statement. You've got a LOT going on for 45K words.

In between, two friends tied together by their inferior social status (what?) travel from ancient Rome to Napoleonic France. Their journey is fraught with danger, intrigue, jealousy, and secrecy. Through it all, Sky discovers who she is and ultimately realizes that her relationship with Finn extends far beyond friendship. (oh great, she's Luke's mother)

If you would like to see the manuscript or a synopsis, I can send it at your convenience. Thanks for your time and consideration,


I also have a thing about made up sounding names like Skylar Fox. Names need to make sense in a story and I don't know about you but the mob bosses we read about here in NYC tend to be Italian and Catholic and name their daughters things like Maria and Francesca and Constanzia. Or saint's names. Last I looked Skylar wasn't a saint and since it's drawn from the Danish and means fugitive, my guess is no mob boss would name his kid that.

And yes, this is picky as hell. Yes, I had to look all that stuff up to tell you why it sounded wrong, but I've said before; I'll say it again, you have to tune up your sense of how a novel works so you see this yourself. You don't have to know why it doesn't work, but you need to be able to look at "Skylar Fox" and think "nahhhh."



This is a form rejection right now.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

#77 Revision

Revision:
Dear Query Shark,

What happens when two best friends fall for the same girl? What if they are in the fifth grade and she mysteriously disappeared in the eighth grade before either of them had a chance to declare their love? Would she slip out of their memories or would she stay to punish them forever?

She punishes them cause she moved away in 8th grade?

For one friend, Rob, he finds the girl and they are married. For the other, Mitch, he endures years of wondering. He thought he just drifted from his friend Rob but really Rob escaped the certain anger of his bigger, stronger friend. Mitch remembered how they were inseparable and he remembered Leslie’s soft hair and precious smile. Nothing consumed his mind more than the last image of her, forever engraved in his thoughts.

For one friend, Rob, he, and For the other, Mitch, he is just plain bad grammar. If you don't know why, you need a class on remedial writing. It is entirely possible to be a pretty smart person and not have a grasp of the fundamentals of grammar. It's not a character flaw either. An awful lot of English classes in the primary and secondary schools don't teach grammar anymore. Quite frankly, I learned most of what I know about English grammar in French class.

However, you do have to learn this stuff. You have to tune up your ear so when you break the rules, you do so intentionally.

Was it coincidence or predestination that Rob’s daughter and Mitch’s son would meet and fall in love? What will happen when Mitch sees Leslie again and what will he do to his old friend?


Unlikely Angels, an 86,000 word novel takes you through a journey of the lives of two men. Unlikely Angels explores their emotions and how they conquer the adolescent issues in life. It describes the feelings teenagers have and how they succumb to sexual temptations or how they can overcome them. Unlikely Angels proves that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence and “no matter how hot someone is, someone, somewhere, is tired of them.”

You're trying to do too much here. You're talking about themes. You need to talk about plot. Also, we have no sense of what either of these men is like.

Unlikely Angels takes the reader to a spiritual place in preparation for More Unlikely Angels and the continuing story of life, death and triumph.


After More Unlikely Angels the story can continue.



Your reconsideration would be is appreciated.

Sincerely,

You've got some major problems here. Your writing needs more than just an edit. You really need writing classes that will teach you to express yourself more clearly. If you can't look at what you've got here and identify some of the major problems, just by reading it, you need more basic help than what this blog is about. And remember: every single person who comments on this blog, writes this blog, and writes the books you read, EVERY single one had to go to class to learn this stuff. It's how we all started.

Right now it's hard to understand what you're trying to write about because sentences like this Nothing consumed his mind more than the last image of her, forever engraved in his thoughts make sense to you but they don't make sense to me.
----------------------------------------

ORIGINAL

Dear Query Shark,

It was the first day of the fifth grade when best friends Mitch and Rob met the girl of their dreams. Her name was Leslie and she was gorgeous. Both boys masterfully kept their cool around Leslie while they shared her as their new best friend.


Everyday the boys secretly plotted to tell her their feelings, but when the opportunities arose, the nerve was lost. As the years passed and the boys matured and so did their desire for Leslie, right up to the day that she disappeared.


Leslie’s mother was a fugitive from the law and so the family disappeared without a trace. When the police arrived to arrest her they found Mitch had entered the empty house and it was a close call for the eighth grader.


Both Mitch and Rob were heartbroken.


Mitch commanded to Rob that if, they ever saw Leslie again, she would be his forever. So when the boys went to separate Universities there were no reasons for Rob to tell Mitch he had found Leslie. She had undergone a transformation for the worse. Rob knew his love could save her from the evils of her new life, so they married and he gave her a daughter, Lisa.

At UCLA Mitch was a star football player and he was happy with his new wife, Jamie. Jamie and Mitch finished college and started their own family with a son named Nathan.

When Lisa and Nathan became adults they chose the theatre as careers, Nathan as an up and coming actor and Lisa the prop girl. In between scenes Nathan nosed around and found the prop room and that is where he found Lisa. It was love at first sight and so marriage was eminent.

Mitch and Rob hadn’t seen each other in over twenty years so imagine Mitch’s surprise when he came face to face with his old friend and the first love he had longed for since childhood.

Nothing went smooth until the men went fishing on Nathan’s actor friend, Brad’s fishing boat. Enamored with Brad the young men hung on his every word. Alcohol flowed and the young men retreated below for movies and conversation. Mitch and Rob stayed above to continue fishing until “the big one” pulled little Rob into the water. With life ring in hand Mitch dove in to save Rob.

They floated for days until they found a deserted island. Food was not abundant for the pair who weakened daily. They survived for eighteen months until only one was rescued.

After the sole survivor passed away their kids had a child of their own and now the friends are tied to the new child as “Unlikely Angels.”

Almost 86,000 words make up Unlikely Angels.



Your consideration would be appreciated.


Sincerely,

This is a series of events, not a plot. The description lacks compelling energy or excitement. Some of the phrases are inadvertently funny:
Nothing went smooth until the men went fishing on Nathan’s actor friend

It's got a lot of misspellings and misused words. I don't mind mistakes, I can overlook that; stuff happens, I make more than my share too. But, I can tell when it's not just a typo. Eminent, commanded to: those are errors that tell me you aren't careful in your use of language. I look at how you use language in a query letter. That and voice are the two biggest things I respond to. Your voice is flat, and you're misusing words.

Form rejection.

Friday, September 12, 2008

#76-Revisions

REVISION:

Dear Query Shark,

I am writing you because you represented [Title] by [Author's Name].

The Last Catholic (90,000 words) is a psychological novel telling the story of how an introspective young man becomes someone like Hamlet. Caught between an abusive alcoholic father and a fanatically religious mother, the protagonist (use his name) finds their conflicts mirrored in his attempts to attain sexual freedom. The novel traces the development of this subject from the protagonist's childhood to age 19 when he leaves home to go to college. In focusing on the psychological conflicts between religion and sexuality the book is broadly relevant to major concerns in religion in America today.

This sounds like an academic treatise, not an interesting novel. What's the protagonist's central conflict, SPECIFICALLY. Attain sexual freedom isn't specific. Most 17 year old boys I know think sexual freedom is having a steady girlfriend whose parents are out of town most of the time.

I was a University Professor for 33 years. I taught a variety of courses in the history of Drama, Modern and Postmodern American Fiction, and Interdisciplinary Studies. I have also worked for over two decades now as an actor in regional theater. I am the author of seven published books on a variety of subjects in Philosophy, Psychoanlaysis, and Cultural Studies and also three full-length plays. (Descriptions of these books, selections from them and a complete Vita are abailable on my website: redacted).

If you need any other information, please don't hesitate to contact me by email at: redacted.

Yours sincerely,


You have not effectively communicated why we should care about any of these characters. There is no plot. I notice you don't mention the word count. If it's still 350,000 words, that's going to come out at some point in the query process believe me. You'd do well to mention what the word count is if you've pared it down. If you haven't, you need to. Even epic fantasy doesn't run that high very often. Form rejection.



ORIGINAL
Dear Query Shark,

I am writing you because you represented [Title] by [Author's Name]. I therefore think you will find my novel of interest.

The first sentence implies the second. You don't need to spell out the obvious here. I find this kind of writing among academics because the writing style required in professional journals requires the outline of logical step. Novels and query letters allow for intuitive leaps.


Titled The Last Catholic, my novel (350,000 words) deals with the conflict between religion and sexuality in the life of a young man of working class origins growing up in Chicago in the 50's and 60's whose life changes when he gets the chance to go away to college. Written in a syle of lyric naturalism, The Last Catholic dramatizes the conflicts created by a strict religious upbringing in a secular world. In this sense the subject is contemporary and broadly relevant

I stop reading at 350,000.
This is too long by a factor of three.
Novels run 70-100,000 words.
Anything more than that just raises the bar.

Just reading the query letter shows me that can probably cut your word count in half with some judicious pruning.



I was a University Professor for 33 years. I taught a variety of courses in the history of Drama, Modern and Postmodern American Fiction, and Interdisciplinary Studies in the relationship of Literature to Philosophy, Psychology and Politics. I have also worked for over two decades now as an actor in regional theatre. I am the author of seven published books on a variety of subjects in philosophy, psychoanalysis and cultural studies and also three full length plays. (Descriptions of these books, selections from them and a complete Vita are available on my website: redacted)

If you need any other information, please don't hesitate to contact me by email at: (redacted) I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Monday, September 1, 2008

#75

Dear Query Shark:


Angie Porter has never wanted kids. Instead, she has an apartment above the bookstore she owns with her friend Peter, two cats, and a boyfriend who doesn't ask for more time or commitment than she's willing to give. Her life is as comfortable and confining as a snail's shell. Then Iraq invades Kuwait and Peter is called to active duty. His anthropologist wife is in Africa and unreachable. Angie reluctantly agrees to take care of Peter's three boys until Maureen comes home. Weeks pass by with no word from Maureen. Angie becomes “not-mom” to kids devastated by their parents’ absence. The pressures of a life she never wanted knock down the protective walls Angie has built around herself. By the time Maureen finally comes home, Angie has lost everything that mattered to her, gained some things she never knew she wanted, and is ready to rebuild her life.


WINNING THE WAR AT HOME is a 68,800-word novel in a vein similar to the work of Laurie Colwin and Cathleen Schine. The first chapter took third place in the Alabama Writers' Conclave's 2008 writing contest.


After twenty-five years as a small business owner, I am now a full time freelancer. I have two mid-grade books scheduled for publication in the next six months and am a regular contributor to Learning Through History, Piecework, and the "Artists on War" department of Military History Quarterly.


I would be pleased to send a partial or complete manuscript of WINNING THE WAR AT HOME for your review. Thank you for your consideration.







And we have a winner. I'm all over this one.



Here's what I like: it's topical for starters, and yet evergreen. The voice is taut, not over-emotional, but we know the emotion is there. It's been seen by what sound like knowledgeable folks. And I just plain want to read it.