Saturday, July 24, 2010


Dear Query Shark,

For eight years, Daniel Schmidt has been doing his best to support himself and his abusive, disabled mother. He took a job at a local grocery store, dropped out of college, sacrificed his future to look after her, and she has nothing but contempt for him.

How about I just smack Daniel around and tell him to snap out of it? It worked for Cher and Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck, right?

The trouble with this opening is that it makes Daniel sound like someone I don't want to spend a paragraph with, let alone a book with. What do you like about him? What motivated him to do all this sacrificing for his mother? Why didn't he leave her to be eaten by wolves?

I don't assume he's a selfless lad because of this; I see a spineless wuss. You've got to make us see his merits here.

One day, Daniel decides not to go straight home after work but to instead take a walk in the woods, and his life changes forever. He meets a young girl named Anja and feels compelled to follow when she invites him to come back to Herbst, a magical village deep in the woods. The villagers welcome him with open arms and for the first time in as long as Daniel can remember, he feels appreciated.

"Feels compelled to follow" is so passive I want to start smacking YOU around now, not Daniel. This is not the reaction you're looking for.

Herbst is a place where people who need to can escape their old lives and start over, and

This, right here, is where your story begins, and a much better first line:

Daniel desperately needs a fresh start. Herbst also can only exist as long as Anja does, and a man lurking in the woods is trying to kill her.

Why is someone trying to kill her? The story is not about how Daniel got there, but what happens now that he's there.

When Daniel and three other newcomers to the village come together to protect Anja, they find themselves up against more than just a man. They have to protect her from an embodiment of the evils of the world they left behind, who seeks to bring unending winter to the village of

This is so general as to be meaningless. You must be specific. "More than just a man"...does that mean he's also a woman? A goat? A shark? I know you mean something else, but this is not the place to be coy about what makes him more than a man.

Eternal Autumn, a 94,000-word fantasy novel, is complete and available at your request.

Thank you for your time,

Form rejection



(name redacted)
(address redacted)
(apartment number redacted)
(city state zip redacted)

If I mention this often enough will you stop doing it?


If I see this in a letter addressed to the Query Shark, your chances of getting on the blog drop to zero. If I see it, you haven't read the archives. Or you read the archives and didn't pay attention. I've mentioned this enough times that I'm starting long past boring myself.

Learn it. Know it. Follow the damn directions.

Dear Query Shark

Deep in an ancient forest, there is a little village called Herbst. Fiery autumnal hues light up the trees of the village year-round, the air is crisp and cool, and the mountaintops are capped with snow.

well, ok, sure but so what?

Unless fiery autumnal hues is the name of the protagonist, it doesn't belong in the first paragraph. And fiery autumnal hues is just plain bad writing. It doesn't say anything more than "red and orange." If you choose to describe red and orange leaves in some fancy way, it should add to the description not just gild it.

If I got this query I'd stop reading right here.

Not many of the villagers are originally from Herbst. Most of them came from ordinary places, like New York or Alabama. How they arrived at Herbst varies, but they all had two things in common – they all needed to escape their old lives, and a young girl named Anja showed them the way.

Describing New York as ordinary and like Alabama made me laugh out loud, and not in a good way.

"A young girl named Anja showed them the way" is actually pretty creepy. You've said this is set in real time, and real space when you invoke New York and Alabama. Thus you've limited your time and space to what will feel emotionally true to us here and now. The only thing I want to know about Anja is why she isn't in school and why she's running around like the Pied Piper of Pelham.

If you want to create a world where young girls lead people out of their old lives, you'd do much better to not invoke the present day.

Through each other’s support and Anja’s help, Herbst became a place where people could leave their miseries behind and start over.

So far, this sounds like Big Sur in the 60's plus nothing is happening. This is a bad sign.

At least, that’s what it used to be.

Finally you get to a point where there is some tension. This is in fact where your story and your query letter start: Herbst used to be a refuge for people. Then....

A stranger has arrived in the forest, hell-bent on murdering the little girl and destroying the village. When four newcomers to the village band together to protect her, they find themselves not only fighting against the new evil lurking outside the village gates but the evils of the old world they left behind, and they discover Anja’s true connection to the village of Herbst.

So, the stranger, I'm guessing he's not the protagonist? Too bad. He's the only interesting one here. Why is he hell-bent on this seeming wicked deed? Oh he just wants to kill her isn't a really compelling motivation (not that I haven't experienced it myself quite recently.)

Eternal Autumn, a 94,000-word novel for young adults, or those who wish they were still young, is available at your request.

If I hadn't stopped reading in the first paragraph, here's where I would have.

For starters, this isn't a YA novel at all. YA novels have protagonists in their teens (your novel doesn't). Generally they deal with issues or themes (and have plots) that are of concern to teen readers (your novel does not).

And "those who wish they were still young" is just rude.

Lots of adults read YA because it's good writing, not because they want to be 16 again. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to think of anyone in my office who reads YA who wants to be 16 again.

I see this kind of "oh my book is YA" now that YA is really hot. Unless you've read 150 YA books that were published in the last three years, you should not even think about writing a YA book or think you know what it is.

Thank you for your time,

This is a form rejection.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

#165-revised 3x

 Third revision

Dear QueryShark:

Laura Locksley drops out of a top tier college because the privileged mindset drove her crazy.

Deciding to do the exact opposite of what’s expected of her, she enrolls in Modern Arts, home of the young and confused.

Gallivanting through Philadelphia (and the rest of the Tri-state area), she experiences everything absent from her sheltered life, ending up at basement fight clubs, nude beaches, inner city schools, and gay disco clubs. She studies the customs of early twenty-something misfits, whose jaded conversations are as ironic as their fashion sense. But when everybody is judged by appearance, nobody is who they appear to be.

Right now that's just a series of events with no sense of the plot.

The story starts here, where Laura is forced to do something different than what she had been doing:
All hell breaks loose when she is forced to bond with her disconnected family after her father's cancer diagnosis. In a vulnerable state, she is scammed by a street psychic and becomes paranoid about her health, visiting the ER weekly. Compared to her home life, the upside-down comfort of Modern Arts starts to feel safer, even if it is just a fantasy.

Laura doesn't sound like a very sympathetic character. She sounds like a self-involved, spoiled brat with no brains. You've said she's "vulnerable" but to what?  You've said she has to bond with her family now that her father is ill, but what does that mean?

The truth is that chasing this dream could leave her poor, sleeping on an Ikea futon in a railroad apartment well into her thirties, maybe forever. Most of her friends are leaving Modern Arts like the locusts of Exodus. But being practical means going back inside the box and playing by the rules of the rich. And nobody has sympathy for a lost little rich girl.

Chasing what dream? Going back inside what box? Playing by the rules of the rich? Where did that come from?

Trapped between her heart and common sense, she always knew that the “good times” wouldn’t last forever. Now she’s afraid that they might.

Trapped between her heart and common sense? There's been absolutely nothing mentioned about where Laura's heart is, and what choices she's trapped between.

MODERN ARTS is a completed, 88,000 word literary fiction novel. Thank you for your time and consideration.

This doesn't work. Start over. Laura is at art college pursuing her dream of being an artist when her father falls ill. Then what?

Focus on writing the most simple sentences you can. Writing simply is very very hard. Writing clearly is harder than that.  The very best writers make it look easy but you don't see the 10K revisions before the finished work. 


Second revision

Dear Query Shark,

Laura Locksley dropped out of a top tier college because it was driving her crazy. That was before she went to art school.

Modern Arts is home to the young and confused, where hedonism and instability splatter the students like paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas. Laura hits her stride, writing music all day and gallivanting through Philadelphia at night. To become a great artist, she studies the barbaric customs of early twenty-somethings and the parade of bohemian misfits, whose jaded conversations are as ironic as their fashion sense. But when everybody is judged by appearance, nobody is who they appear to be.

"Splatter the students like paint" is a metaphor that doesn't actually illuminate your point.  Unless the students are splattered (which evokes images of a car wreck frankly)  I don't understand what you're trying to say here.

 "To become a great artist she studies the barbaric customs..." is where I step off the train. I know people who ARE great artists and this doesn't sound like anything they did.  If you're trying to be ironic I'm missing it.

A cold slap of reality comes when Laura's father is diagnosed with cancer. Her disconnected family is forced to square off, each person feeling like the last remaining member. But even a sterile hospital can't clean the past, and the upside-down comfort of Modern Arts starts to feel safer.

What's the problem here? Does someone need a kidney and they're duking it out to find out who gets to donate? I don't understand the problem here, or the choices.

She realizes that chasing this dream could leave her poor, sleeping on an Ikea futon in a railroad apartment well into her thirties, maybe forever. Most of her friends are leaving Modern Arts like the locusts of Exodus. But being practical means changing careers, going back inside the box... or, worst of all, marrying rich slime.

Wait, I thought she was at the hospital throwing dice for a kidney?

Trapped between her heart and common sense, a revolving door of friends and the midnight music that makes her feel alive, she always knew that the "good times" wouldn’t last forever. Now she’s afraid that they might.

MODERN ARTS is a completed, 88,000 word novel. Thank you for your time and consideration.

For the love of ChrisKringle, quit trying to be fancy. Leave out all the metaphors. Leave out all the razzle dazzle. Just tell me what the story is.

Right now, this is all froth and no substance. That means it's a form rejection. I know you've been working hard on improving this, but you've got to pare down to the basics. Don't be afraid to be plain. Plain, elegant writing is harder to achieve than razzle dazzle.

Throw this entire query away and start with the basics. What does Laura want? What's keeping her from getting it? What choice does she face? What's at stake. Answer that question with NO ADJECTIVES and you've got the skeleton of better query.

First revision

Dear Query Shark,

Laura Locksley pursues a music degree at Modern Arts University, unprepared for the hedonism and instability that splatter the students. The economy nosedives into a recession, causing the artists to doubt whether their aspirations will be attained. It is easy to let the good times roll and feel the repercussions later. She observes people while socializing.

This paragraph is a mess. You're so busy being all writerly you've forgotten that clarity is the first goal.

I'm not sure what you mean by "instability" here. They live in a place where gravity comes and goes?

You start with Laura, then in the second sentence you reference "the artists" and the third has no direct subject at all. It's not clear who you're talking about. That's a very bad thing in the first paragraph of a query.

She dislikes her vulnerability yet can't seem to harden her heart.

Her family has drifted apart and must now deal with cancer together. Displaced fear provokes her monthly trips to the emergency room, which only result in a psychologist referral. Then a street psychic sees Laura crying and seizes the financial opportunity. She takes a stab at Laura's secrets and brainwashes her with forebodings of an inflicted curse, insisting that it must be lifted.

Does this actually make sense to you? It doesn't to me. First we're at art school with "let the good times roll" and now we're dealing with cancer?

A query is a limited word opportunity to entice me to read the book. You cannot stuff it full of every event or even all the story.

After this harsh awakening, Laura seeks distraction. She visits nude beaches, collegiate fight clubs, small town bars, Manhattan hotels, casinos, and graffiti-covered rooftops. When she composes her senior recital, Laura reflects on lessons at school and her life education. She feels grateful for the strength to withstand despair.

You make it sound like the climax of the book is her senior recital. I really hope that's not the case.

Life is sweet when Ryan falls in love with her. But that was before she found him passed out on the kitchen tile, a tourniquet and needle nearby.

Who the hell is Ryan?

Cardinal in a Cage of Bone is a completed, 84,000 word novel in the literary fiction genre. Thank you for your time and consideration.

All the best,

This is a mess. Start over. Limit yourself to what ONE choice Laura must make early in the book, and what the consequences of that choice are. Be specific.

Dear Query Shark,

Amongst the last to pursue a "vanity degree" before the current recession, Laura Locksley matriculates into the zany Modern Arts University, where hedonism and instability splatter the students like paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas. She explores music, intoxication, sex, inspiration, and artifice—young and confused in an epoch where The Happiest Place on Earth is bugged with cameras, Manhattan businessmen commit office suicides, and surgically-enhanced faces drink from the Fountain of Youth.

I'm sorry, but wtf?

The Happiest Place on Earth, last time I looked, is Disneyland's claim. In other words, not art school. You can certainly juxtapose jarring images for effect, but this simply doesn't work. There's too much splatter and not enough form. You've got 17 images here, with no discernible connection. Simplify.

Laura uses her sunglasses, ipod, vodka-filled flask, elaborate make-up, and carefully-planned clothing to buffer reality, unaided by a glowing touchscreen. She becomes infatuated with the beautiful, disaffected boys that she meets in grungy basement parties and on the cobblestone streets of Philadelphia. Like the anatomical metaphor of its title, Cardinal in a Cage of Bone captures the magic of an artist's internal life. But as reality looms and the ghosts of lost companions linger like smoke from their now-extinguished cigarettes, the kids accept their diplomas and think, With so much progress, why do we feel like failures?

You've used 97 words here, nearly half the allotment of a query letter, and you've actually managed to say nothing. For starters, what is the book about? Is there a plot? Plot is what choice the protagonist has to make. What decision? An ennui drenched roman a clef with no plot isn't going to fly here.

I am a 2008 graduate of the (redacted) with a BA in Music Composition. While studying creative writing, I completed two short story collections and tutored for the writing department.

None of this is an actual writing credit. Publication is a writing credit.

Cardinal in a Cage of Bone is a completed, 84,000 word novel in the literary fiction genre. Please contact me if you are interested in sample chapters. Thank you for your time and consideration.

All the best,

You absolutely must be able to tell me what the book is about and why I should care about reading it. This isn't composition class; this is mud splattered, in the trenches, in-it-for-money-screw-the-love general trade publishing. Get over yourself. We all went to art school in one form or another.

Form rejection.