Friday, March 20, 2009


Dear Query Shark:

Shattered Ceiling is a 82,000 word political thriller set in Louisville, Kentucky, and Washington, D.C.

Former juvenile delinquent turned P.I. Jo Grant tracks a client’s runaway daughter to a feminist commune in the hollows of Kentucky. The missing girl is an unwitting pawn in a U.S. Senator’s scheme to frame his popular opponent for a staged assassination attempt – on himself. Jo discovers an ex-Vietnam sniper, furious at military funding cuts, out to kill the Senator for real, but Jo’s dicey past prevents the authorities from believing her. As bodies pile up, Jo races to extricate her clients, foil the Senator’s plot, and stop the real assassin.

How did she get a PI license if she has such a dicey past? And what military funding cuts? There's a war on now; this sounds like it was written for 1992. You're focused on the protagonist, but the story sounds like it's about the Senator's evil plans. You might want to start with that. Given the reelection rate of incumbents is about 98%, you need a reason this Senator thinks he's going to lose if he doesn't wag the dog**.

I am(redacted) of Sisters in Crime and a founding board member of the (redacted) Writers’ Festival.

Thank you for your time and consideration of my work. The full manuscript and a SASE envelope are included.

Whoa! Never include a full manuscript with a query. NEVER. The purpose of a query is to see if the agent wants to receive the ms at all. Unsolicited fulls are discarded, unread (at least when I get them, they are!)
And it's just SASE (not SASE envelope.) SASE stands for Stamped, Self Addressed Envelope. err...yes, the shark choked up: it's of course Self Addressed, Stamped Envelope.

Thank goodness for sharp eyed readers who post comments!

Sincerely yours,

Response: There's nothing to grab on to here. I have no sense of the characters other than Jo is an ex-juvenile delinquent. No sense of the stakes (so what if the Senator loses, throw all the bums out, I say) and a lot of very standard description (races to, bodies pile up). Form rejection.

***If you haven't seen Wag the Dog, you're missing a truly hilarious send up of politics.


Dear Query Shark:

WHISTLE BRITCHES is a southern term of endearment for boys with more energy than sense and who talk to hear their heads rattle.

Is "talk to hear their heads rattle" another southern turn of phrase? It jars me because heads don't rattle.

This middle-grade historical fiction set in Tullahoma, Tennessee in the summer of 1963 when the battles ravaging the land a century earlier were still felt, the Civil Rights Movement heated up, and the death count of the Vietnam Conflict started to climb.

This is an awkward sentence. It's also missing a verb.
The tense of the verbs seems off too: ARE still felt (not were), is heating up (not heated) and has started to climb.

I'm all for colorful writing, and I'll let you break every rule in the book, should that be your desire, but it's got to sound polished when you're done. This doesn't.

I'm not convinced that a middle grade book set in 1963 is considered "historical" but I'm not going to stop reading cause you categorize something in a way I think is wrong.

It's the awkward writing that will stop me cold.

When Will sees a WWI hero spit upon in his casket by the widow, his ten-year-old imagination spews out like a shaken co-cola.

Imagination spews out? Metaphors should illuminate, not confuse the reader.

Sent to his intense and serious grandmother as a punishment for his overactive imagination, Will sees another side to her.

whoa! I'm confused. We're not at the funeral with a spitting widow? That's just preliminary to the story? Get that OUT of the query. Focus on the heart of the story.

He also meets George Beatty, an old handyman, who has no schooling to speak of, but is the smartest man Will's ever met.

I'm afraid we've sunk into stereotypes and cliches now. The heart of gold, school of life handyman is such a stock figure that you must do something fresh and original with him to make him a compelling character.

Tullahoma in 1963 is a small town in which blacks and whites don't mix. But the kindness Will experiences on the other side of the tracks surprises him, especially because the hatred he observes in his grandmother's white Protestant church is such a contrast.

Will’s predicaments, his adversities, and the evasive nature of hope challenge him in formidable ways.

The evasive nature of hope? That's a phrase so awkward I don't know if it's hope or nature that's evasive.

I've been a magazine editor, ghostwriter, author, and nonfiction agent (for fifteen years). I now help my wife (a teacher and reading specialist) develop books in the education market. She is the co- author of (redacted). No no no. Helping your spouse, of either gender, is not a publication credit.

WHISTLE BRITCHES is the first of several middle-grade novels I hope to write ...

this sentences implies you have not written it. I sincerely hope this is not the case.

...and for which I'm seeking representation. As a recording artist of folk and children’s songs (six music CDs for -redacted-to be released May 28th), I hope to help promote WHISTLE BRITCHES and other forthcoming books by visiting schools for performances and readings.

Thank you for your consideration.

Reply: awkward writing, cliche and stock characters spell form rejection.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

#105-amended critique

Dear Query Shark:

In my novel, Both Sides Burning, Stephen Latimer is on the wrong side of history. The setting is the beginning At the start of the American Revolution, Latimer is a Loyalist, banished for his refusal to embrace the rebellion sweeping the American colonies. But instead of going quietly, he attacks his Patriot neighbor, the man he blames for his misfortune. He lands in Connecticut’s notorious Newgate Prison, sentenced to ten years in the dismal underground caverns.

I'm interested right away because the Loyalist perspective is different than the usual POV I see in historical novels. What puzzles me is that he's banished for his refusal to embrace the rebellion. A lot of Loyalists lived in the Colonies right up to the end of the war. It wasn't a crime to be a Loyalist. So, why is he banished? And why does he blame his neighbor?

NEW: There's a comment below that talks about the laws in Connecticut specifically. Including THAT specific info in this query will strengthen it.

NEW: I've seen this kind of thing before in historicals: a fact that isn't well known is the basis for a plot or a character. I read it and wonder if it's accurate. A line of explanation in the query letter would have been really useful.

(Loyalist info link here)

A couple more sentences here will help set the scene, maybe even just a few more words.

He engineers a daring escape, and as the smallpox epidemic of 1775-76 stalks the countryside, he makes his way home. He intends to retrieve his savings and take refuge with his brother on Long Island. (Fully half of New York is Loyalist so this makes sense) But a A chance encounter with his neighbor’s daughter, whose family is ravaged by smallpox, will change the course of both their lives, and cause him to question where his allegiance really lies.

I am a former radio and TV news reporter with an Emmy nomination for feature writing. I now work for the public library in (redacted), and sit on the executive board of the (redacted) Library Association. I believe Both Sides Burning will appeal to readers who enjoyed the adventure and romance of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.

whoa. Hang on here. Outlander is set in Scotland in the 1700's right? It's about time travel, isn't it? This seems like a jarring comparison.

***After reading the comments section, I'm going to change my advice here. If you want to compare it to Diana Gabaldon's books you might consider adding that the later books in her series are historicals set in this time period. I don't think you can assume agents know that (I read the first books in the series several years back so I had the wrong impression here)

Both Sides Burning is my first novel. It is 139,000 words.

Yowza! 139,000 words is about 39,000 too many. I'm going to STRONGLY suggest that you get someone with an eye for slicing, dicing and paring to take a good look at this. Even if you like long ass books (and historicals can run long, this can probably be chopped by 20,000 words and be an easier sell)

I would be happy to send you the completed manuscript or a synopsis and sample chapters. This is a multiple submission.

You don't need these sentences. Use the space for more description in the first paragraph.

Thank you for your consideration.

I'd probably read pages on this one but I'm concerned that it's too long and there's not enough story. I like the concept though.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


Dear Query Shark:

A dash of snark meets dark in UNLEASHING YOUR INNER SEX DEMON, my 90,000 word humorous paranormal romance.

I'm not sure this query will survive my spam filters. If you're querying via email you MUST put QUERY in the subject line so that if "inner sex demon" triggers the filters, the agent will recognize it's a query when she goes slogging through the spam.

Beautician Lucia Gregory has a problem, but this time it's not bunion ridden pedicures or a perm gone horribly wrong. This time it's much more serious. Who would have thought opening a simple chest could unleash the bowels of hell? Then again, when the chest is clearly labeled Arca de Inferni (Chest of the Damned) she really should have known better. Overnight, she turns into a sexpot. Men who would never give her the time of day, including her gay coworkers, throw themselves at her feet. Then she meets Rafael, a darkly sexy man claiming to be a demon. He isn't like other men, that¹s for sure. Instead of groveling at her feet like the others, he remains distant and aloof. When he tells her she's a sex-demon, she doesn't know whether to laugh hysterically or be horribly mortified.

Opening a chest/unleash the bowels of hell? Um. Demon diarrhea? This may not be the visual you want. I don't think you need to be quite so specific. Maybe it's just me but I have a visual of cardiac surgery and colostomy bags here, and believe me, that's NOT what you want.

Oh wait. It's not a thoracic chest. It's a portmanteau chest. Got it. Took me three reads to get that. Again, that's not what you want.

She can open a cask, a barrel, a vault, a jewelbox or a box of caramel corn if you want, but you need a word that doesn't evoke chest meaning body part. I think the reason I was confused was because of the body imagery before that. (toes, hair etc)

Rafael Deleon, a Guardian Demon, is hell-bent on retrieving the Arca de Inferni. If it ends up in the wrong person's possession, they will have the power to take over the world. When he tracks the chest to a suburban hair studio, he can't believe what else he finds--a beautiful succubus who has no idea of the power she possesses. As a demon, he should be able to resist her charms. But the closer she gets to him, the more attracted to her he becomes.

However, the leader of the Infernati, an evil sect of demons, has his own plans. He needs the chest and Lucy so he can finally control Earth. Rafe is determined to protect Lucy, who'd rather go out with guns blazing. Sparks fly as both are unable to fight their growing attraction. Who would've known saving the world could be so much fun?

UNLEASHING YOUR INNER SEX DEMON has been named a finalist in several RWA sponsored contests. I am a member of Romance Writers of America, Mid Michigan Romance Writers and several special interest chapters. I am also involved in a critique group where I have the opportunity to work with several published authors. (that's nice but irrelevant)

If you are interested, I will gladly send you either the first three chapters or the complete manuscript. I appreciate your time and consideration.


If I was looking for paranormal romance, I'd probably read pages here despite the flaws. A query letter doesn't have to be perfect (this one isn't) but it does have to have verve and voice. This one does.


Dear X,

A few months ago you requested pages from my paranormal YA novel, X. Although you passed on that project, you wrote, “I'd like to see you tackle a YA project that has some supernatural elements but without having the majority of the story take place in an unfamiliar world.” You invited me to query you again with my future projects. I took your advice and wrote my new novel, SEVENTH SON.

Bento is a handsome fifteen-year old boy living secretly in the jungles of Argentina. But when local villagers try to burn him alive and end his looming werewolf curse, Bento escapes to New Jersey with the help of a friend. He must discover the truth about his bloodline to control the beast stirring inside him and learn to trust himself before it devours his soul and the girl he has come to love.

I'm not sure what a looming werewolf curse is. Do you mean impending? And how is he living secretly? Alone? Raised by wolves?

Most of this probably won't matter since this agent X has already expressed interest in your work. Your job in this query letter is simply not to sound like a raving maniac; most likely X is going to read pages unless you scare her off.

My 43,310 word paranormal YA novel, SEVENTH SON, explores not only Bento’s werewolf monster, but also the monsters we all keep hidden. It is written in the alternating voices of Bento and his girlfriend, Clarissa.

I have attended many SCBWI sponsored conferences, as well as Writer's Boot Camp, and online classes. I’ve written monthly articles for (redacted) Magazine. I participated as a nominated mentee in the (redacted) Workshop and was fortunate to work with author, Joyce McDonald as my mentor. In the past, I was represented by (redacted.) In the midst of projects he decided to give up the agent life, leading me to contact you.

Whoa. I though you were contacting her cause she'd passed on other stuff and invited you to resend new stuff. Be consistent.