Saturday, June 25, 2011

#206

Dear Query Shark:

A helicopter crashes. An airport is closed. Traffic blocks a highway. Are they related? Is it terrorism? Or something worse?

This sounds like Monday on the LIRR to me. Which is the biggest problem with rhetorical questions...they don't elicit the answer you think they do. And that's the reason I continue to tell queriers: don't open your query with any sort of question.

I'm a published author, and I've just completed (redacted), a 102,000-word thriller woven in part around these themes.

What themes? You haven't mentioned ANY themes. You've mentioned traffic.

Never EVER use the phrase "just completed" in a query. The last thing I want to read is something you "just completed." I want to read something you've polished until it gleams. There's absolutely no need to mention how recently you finished this and polished it up. This is one place where you can cut words, and you need to because this query clocks in at 440 words.

And "I'm a published author" has become code for "I'm self published and trying to hide it."

Of course, when I looked up your name, you're not that at all. You want to make SURE you mention the title and publisher of your last book. Here's how to do that.

"I am the author of TITLE (Publisher: year published) a non-fiction look at Subject. I am querying you on my first novel TITLE OF NOVEL." In other words, get the name of the publisher right there next to the title.

If you have more than one book here's what you do:

"I am the author of Number of Books, most recently TITLE (Publisher: year published). I've included a list of my books at the bottom of this email" and then include the list below your signature and above the first 3-5 pages of the manuscript you include in the query.

Here's where your query really starts ----->The story tracks Adam Robson and Zoe Diamond, two yuppie New York reporters, who witness what seems like an unfortunate but innocent helicopter crash over the New Jersey Turnpike. The next day they inexplicably become the targets of violence. Panicked, they flee to Mexico, then Argentina, and finally the Middle East as they try to learn who is attacking them and why.

They're the only people who see a helicopter crash on the NJ Turnpike? Really? You can't pry me out of NYC with a crowbar so I haven't actually ever seen the NJ Turnpike, but I looked up the stats and it seems like there are more than 100,000 cars on the NJ Turnpike daily. If they're not the only people who see it, why are they targets?

And their first response is run to Mexico? Not go to the police?

This is why short form queries are so hard to write. You don't have time to explain or world-build. You have to entice your reader with very few words.

Meanwhile, Ariel Katz, a tenacious Israeli anti-terrorism expert, becomes intrigued by the crash, suspecting that terrorists might be involved. Katz's investigation indirectly lures Adam and Zoe to Israel. Just after they enter that country with forged documents, Katz orders their arrest. Pursued now by two groups, Adam and Zoe find themselves running frantically into the Old City of Jerusalem. There a harrowing chase through the narrow, ancient streets and alleyways finally leads them to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christianity's holiest site.


Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? Right now you've got a lot of people running around the world. You've got a lot going on, but no plot.

With no way out, Adam and Zoe have to decide who to trust. Only in the aftermath do they finally learn the chilling truth that will haunt them, and the reader, forever.

Only one story has haunted me forever, and you don't want to promise to do that to me again. (Shirley Jackson's THE LOTTERY in case you're wondering.)

"Haunt you forever" is hyperbole. It's not effective in a query.

The style of (redacted) combines the pace and excitement of John Grisham's earlier books with the uncanny relevance of Wag the Dog, weaving together terrorism, international intrigue, and hints of politics, religion, history, and myth. (Many of the supporting details come from my own research.) Combined with the exotic locations in the novel, (redacted) offers excellent cinematic possibilities.

You're telling, not showing. Cinematic possiblities is nice, but I'm not a film agent. All I care about is whether it's a rip-roaring novel with a crackerjack plot.

I have written or contributed to 15 non-fiction books, with another forthcoming; I've also written for the (well-known newspaper). And I lecture widely throughout North America and Europe. I was prompted to turn to fiction when reviewers called me a "master raconteur" who writes with "a flair" (well known other newspaper) and lauded my first non-fiction book as a "tour de force" that "reads like
an adventure novel."


There's no way to say that stuff about yourself without sounding pretentious as hell. It may be true (I'm sure it is) but it's like telling people your SAT score. I don't really care why you turned to writing novels. I only care if this is one I want to read.

Can I send you part or all of my ms. for review?

For your convenience, I've also made the ms. and information about it available on-line at: (redacted)

you have your entire manuscript online? oh wait, no you don't. It's password encrypted. Thus it's NOT online unless I email you to ask you for the password.

I'm not going to do that. And I'm probably not going to go to your website to read pages. When an agent asks for the first N to N+1 pages in a query, you have to paste them in the email. NOT include a URL.



I can be reached as follows:

E-mail: (redacted)
Phone: (redacted)
Post: (redacted)


This info goes under your name.

I look forward to hearing from you.
Thank you for your time and consideration.


Sincerely,

This query is 404 words, and I really encourage writers to adhere to the 250 mark.  Not just to keep it to the one page limit, but forcing yourself to write in this short form forces you to pare down your query to the essentials.




In the QueryShark archives is a template for how to get the essentials of plot in to a query letter.  I'm honest to god not kiddding when I tell you guys reading the archives is essential.  Yes I know there are 200+ letters in there, but if you read those first you'll save yourself a lot of time and revisions.

This is a form rejection despite impressive publication credentials. I have no sense of the plot, and that's absolutely critical in a thriller. I have no sense of the antagonist either.


Start over.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

#205-Revised

(date)


You don't need the date in the body of a query letter.  I know when you sent it because my email management program tells me.

Dear QueryShark

I chose your agency because: (bla, bla, bla.)

Don't lead with this. I personally don't give a rat's asterisk about why you queried me but I know some of my ilk like to see this kiss-up stuff personalization. It goes at the end of the query. Start with the story.


My completed novel OUTLAWS (working title) is 66,400 words action story.

Don't worry about the title, and whether it's working or final or whatever. Publishers have final say in the title of books and at least half the books I've sold have undergone title changes. In other words, don't get too attached to the "perfect title"--just like washing your car is a sure fire way to make it rain, loving your title too much means it's Gone In 60 Seconds.


Josh Grant's puritan upbringing by Amish grandparents did not prepare him for life as a city cop. It did prepare him to live as a reclusive farmer in the mountains of Southern Idaho where he relocated. The lifestyle served as his personal pergatory to atone for his self-imposed guilt for not protecting his wife and son from the drug ravaged city crime. His isolated hideaway, where the only responsibility was to his animals, served as santuary for a while.


Did you even run spell check before you sent this?

You're still bogged down in backstory. How Josh got to Idaho, and Grandpa and Grandma aren't relevant. He's there now. Start where the story starts.


It starts here ----->When he stumbles onto the bloodied body of his friend at the general store he reluctantly calls on his street skills to protect his friend's daughter Jolene from the thugs who murdered her father. Together they must survive attacks from the ruthless gang bent on eliminating witnesses to the murder.

Consider this: Josh finds his friend, Felix Buttonweazer murdered at the general store. Now he must help Felix's daughter Jolene hide from the ruthless gang determined to eliminate witnesses.

Names are a big help on keeping everyone straight.



The gang kidnapps Jolene and Josh must go on the offensive. Along the way he finds renewed reason to live.

If they're bent on eliminating witnesses, why do they kidnap her? Why don't they kill her?

(About me)
Well, no, you actually have to spell this out in a query.

Thank you for your consideration.


I sense you're getting impatient here, with both the critiques and the comments.  You've written the novel, and you just want to get started on getting it in front of people.  I'm impatient too, and easily frustrated (just ask the minions who have to deal with me in the office on a daily basis--they have bolt holes for when it gets rough!)

Right now, you need to step back and give this query some breathing time.  At least two weeks. Don't read the comments (in fact, I'm going to shut them down).  Just let this percolate for awhile.  

Go read some good novels. Give yourself some time off.  Then come back, read through the archives again (you're missing the template of how to talk about plot in a query) then start over.

This is better than it was, but it's still not close to where it needs to be.

--------------------------
> (date)
>
> Dear (agent):
>
> Imagine being a homicide detective in a drug ravaged city where your wife
> and young child are the victims of a drive-by shooting.
>
>Detroit detective, Josh Grant lived through that - barely. Plagued with
>self-loathing over his failure to protect his family, he quits the force
> and moves to the mountains of Southern Idaho where he exists as a
>reclusive farmer just as his Amish grandparents had.
>
> On a trip to a country general store for supplies he stumbles onto the
> bloodied body of the store owner and interrupts the attempted rape of the
> owner's daughter, Jolene. Josh recognizes the motorcycle gang's logo as
> that of the notorious Outlaws, a vicious biker gang he's dealt with in the
> past. In his rescue of Jolene, Josh kills one biker and holds another for
> arrest. He and Jolene join forces to prevent further attempts by the
> Outlaws to avenge their fallen brother and eliminate witnesses to the
> murder. Holed up at Josh's isolated farm, he and Jolene survive an all-out
> gun battle with the gang, only to have Jolene kidnapped by the leader of
> the gang and held hostage to lure Josh into his gun sights. With his back
> to the wall and no help, Josh must end this - his way.
>
> OUTLAWS is a completed 66400-word action/romance novel.
>
> My professional experience as a police lieutenant in a large Ohio city
> imbues this novel with a ring of authenticity only experience can bring. I
> have published articles in major trade publications including Police Chief
> and Law Enforcement.
>
> Thank you for your consideration.



This is how your query looks when you copy it from one email and paste it in another or FORWARD.  It's blue, it's got the > thingies, and it's hard to read.

The QueryPolice won't show up at your house. Agents will still glance at your query, BUT it's REALLY hard to read, even on a computer screen. A LOT of agents are reading on their iphones and smaller screens.

Don't do this.

Command D: Duplicate message. Invest a couple minutes in finding out how your mail program does this and then USE IT.  And NEVER forward a query email. Never.

I don't retype every pitch letter to editors. I duplicate the basic message and then personalize it (Dear Reagan Arthur, I'm desperate to do a book with you cause I adore everything you publish. Pleeeeeze buy this)

Now on to the actual substance of the query:



 
(date)

Dear Query Shark:

Imagine being a homicide detective in a drug ravaged city where your wife and young child are the victims of a drive-by shooting.

No thank you. This kind of abrupt statement is akin to a rhetorical question. It's not the most effective way to open a query letter.  For starters, I don't have a wife or a young child.  While I can certainly read books featuring heroes who have those stakes, the reason I care about the wife and child is because I am sympathetic with the hero, NOT because I have a wife and child. There's a big difference.

Detroit detective, Josh Grant lived through that - barely. Plagued with  self-loathing over his failure to protect his family, he quits the force  and moves to the mountains of Southern Idaho where he exists as a reclusive farmer just as his Amish grandparents had.

This is all backstory. And it's backstory that kills this query letter. Why would I want to spend any time at all, let alone a couple hours in the company of a man who is clearly so despondent and reclusive? There's nothing here that catches my sympathy or my interest.

Let me holler on my soapbox again: the purpose of a query is to ENTICE an agent to read your novel. This isn't.

The story starts here -----> On a trip to a country general store for supplies he stumbles onto the
bloodied body of the store owner and interrupts the attempted rape of the owner's daughter, Jolene. Josh recognizes the motorcycle gang's logo as that of the notorious Outlaws, a vicious biker gang he's dealt with in the past. In his rescue of Jolene, Josh kills one biker and holds another for arrest. He and Jolene join forces to prevent further attempts by the Outlaws to avenge their fallen brother and eliminate witnesses to the murder. Holed up at Josh's isolated farm, he and Jolene survive an all-out
gun battle with the gang, only to have Jolene kidnapped by the leader of the gang and held hostage to lure Josh into his gun sights. With his back to the wall and no help, Josh must end this - his way.

You've given me the entire synopsis here so there's no sense of wanting to know "what comes next" which you MUST have in a query.

OUTLAWS is a completed 66400-word action/romance novel.

This is not a romance novel in any way shape or form. This is a straight up piece of commercial fiction.

My professional experience as a police lieutenant in a large Ohio city imbues this novel with a ring of authenticity only experience can bring. I have published articles in major trade publications including Police Chief and Law Enforcement.

Thank you for your consideration.

This query doesn't work. There's nothing fresh or original about the plot. I have no sense of connection to the characters, and no reason to care about what happens to them. The villains are stereotypes. I'd be MUCH more interested in this if the motorcycle gang were the good guys.

This is a form rejection.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

#204-Revised

Dear Query Shark

Maya will do anything to save Matthew, including pose as Arthur’s girlfriend, if he makes sure her young protégée’s medical treatments are fully paid in exchange.

See the difference?

Of course, things would be easier if Arthur was not so far from her image of the ideal boyfriend. Let’s face it: he’s arrogant, he’s snob, he discards women like toys and he bends to his father’s heartless commands without a protest. At least he's... Well, hot. And with her family’s charity foundation under financial scrutiny, Arthurs is also the only one who can help her to save the boy’s life.

In Arthur’s world, Maya feels out of her league and unwelcomed. He adjusts to hers so well she wonders if there’s more to the man than first meets the eye. She really should focus on his motives, or the threats against the Foundation, instead of listening to her foolish heart’s whispers about second chances. Because she agreed to kiss him only for Matthew, didn’t she?

SECOND CHANCES is my first romantic novel and it counts 50 000 words.

Romantic novel? No. Romance novel is a category. Romantic novel is a novel blowing kisses off the shelf.

It counts 50,000 words? Novels don't count words. Novels are comprised of words. It's 50,000 words.

These are the mistakes of a non-native speaker and let me tell you, they raise a HUGE red flag. When you have these kinds of mistakes in the query, you'll have them in the novel, and no matter how much I like a novel, that's going to be a problem.

This is one of the very few instances where I'd suggest you hire a good freelance editor to help you polish up the manuscript. Find a good one cause you'll need him/her on your team for the long term.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,


This is much better but still needs polishing.



-------------------

This query arrived in blue "ink". Always ALWAYS email your query to a couple friends  who use different computer platforms and different emails than you as a test.  Blue won't keep your query from being considered but it makes it harder to read. You don't want ANYTHING standing in the way of your query looking great.

Dear Query Shark,

My novel, SECOND CHANCES, is a 48 000 word fiction, targeted for contemporary romance.

Your novel is targeted for contemporary romance? I'm sorry, that makes me laugh out loud at the charming idea of all the novels on my bookshelves having parties, hooking up, and generally making merry while they await their chance to be read.

Do you mean the category is "contemporary romance?" You say: My novel is a contemporary romance of 48,000 words. Which is REALLY short by the way, even for category romance.

And you put all this housekeeping info at the bottom. Start with the story.

It will take you within Maya's world, some days before Christmas.
This is telling not showing.

Maya Finnegan has a job she loves, being the intendant at the Vallon Hospital;
I didn't assume you misspelled attendant until I looked up "intendant"

she also gives time to the Make-a-wish Association and the Gerald Finnegan Foundation. When an orphan named Matthew arrives at the hospital, Maya is instantly drawn to him and she knows he will need the resources of the Foundation to receive the proper treatments for his cancer.

This is all backstory.

However, the bank account is frozen, (what bank account) apparently due to her godfather’s (who?) intervention. Robert (who?) never accepted the Finnegans’ money escaped his control, and he will stop at nothing to get the money back under his ‘care’. For him, a small child’s death is just collateral damage in his war against the sisters (what sisters?). And he seems also very sure the Finnegan family has something to hide.


I've stopped reading here. I'm utterly confused about who the main character is. I'm absolutely stymied about why you think any of this describes a romance of any kind, and I'm here to tell you that if you kill that kid, you're going to be toast in the query process even if you revise this thing to perfection.

His son is no better.

The story starts here------>Arthur Pendleton is conceited, arrogant, snob, he considers women as toys, and he uses sarcasm the way others play the piano. Maya should know better than trust him when he presents her with a deal, quite simple. Maya will pose as his girlfriend for a while. In exchange, Arthur will make sure Matthew’s operation is paid, and he will take care of any financial difficulty until the child recovers fully. Arthur claims his father has decided it is time for him to find a proper wife, one mighty Robert will of course choose, and that getting married, especially to his father’s idea of the perfect spouse, is not in his immediate plans. Maya is suspicious, but to save the child, she accepts. Damned the consequences…



As requested on your guidelines, the synopsis is pasted below.

My experiences with publishing are linked to my job as an geotechnical engineer, with my master thesis, and co-writing a scientific article published with the XXX proceedings in 2010. I enjoy writing and have done so for a very long time, in both English and French.

I thank you for your time and consideration and I hope my story will be what you are looking for.

Sincerely,

If you are pitching a romance, start with the two people involved in the romance, and what the barrier is to finding happiness. You don't need a lot of set up and backstory in a query (you don't need it in a novel either.)
This doesn't do what a query letter must do: entice me to read on.

Start over.

#203-revised 2x

Dear Query Shark:

When Amanda Shaw is shipped off to her grandparents for the summer, she figures she's in for the most boring two months of her life.

Your story starts here ----->All that changes when she sits next to Emily Lawrence the first day of summer school. Emily is psychic and insists Amanda's "friend" Charlie is a ghost. Before Amanda can deny Emily's claims, Charlie flips over Emily's desk and disappears.

This is where the story starts, but not exactly as you've written it here of course. It starts here because this is where something happens. The first paragraph is set up, back-story. We don't need to know any of it.


3: Amanda must decide if finding out who Charlie was and why he has always been with her will help or destroy him.


With each bit of information about Charlie that Amanda and Emily find, Charlie retaliates. At first, he inconveniences them: turning off electricity while they’re Google-ing him and shredding homework.

But right before the girls meet Charlie’s mother, Charlie changes from a scared yet good natured ghost to an evil force: shattering glass and throwing it at them.

Charlie remembers bits of his last day alive in a series of short flashbacks, but when he nearly kills Amanda, his memory comes flooding back.

you're telling too much here. A query shouldn't reveal the entire book.  I'd strike this paragraph and put Paragraph 3 here instead:



3: Amanda must decide if finding out who Charlie was and why he has always been with her will help or destroy him.

A TORTURED SOUL is a paranormal YA novel complete at 66,000 words.

 You've called this YA but the story feels more middle grade to me. The stakes aren't very high, and the level of threat is pretty mild. Glass throwing ghosts are scary but not terrifying.

In a previous iteration of this query, you mention Amanda is 14. That also puts it at middle grade. Young readers read up: they read books about kids slightly older than they are. Thus your audience is 10-13.

This still doesn't work yet. It's still flat. Your words don't have enough energy to entice me to read on.  Read the archives again. Pay attention to the queries that got to yes. Almost universally they have an energy and zest that grabs my attention.

--------------------
Dear Query Shark:

Amanda Shaw has been a loner her whole life, except for her imaginary friend Charlie. After getting into some trouble at home, she’s shipped off to her grandparent’s for what is sure to be the most boring summer ever, summer school and community service included.

This isn't terrible. There's nothing overtly wrong. The problem is you can't be just ok and get to the next level. This doesn't sing out to me; it doesn't say "read me!"

One of the reasons is you're telling me, not showing me. And you're telling me in a very static (rather than dynamic) way.

Consider this: When Amanda is shipped off to her grandparents for the summer (after that little problem at school) she knows she's in for the most boring summer of her life.

For starters it's shorter. And there's motion. Do you see the difference?



Then Amanda meets Emily Lawrence, the only other person who can see Charlie. At first, Amanda thinks it’s great, until Emily tells her a secret: she’s a psychic— oh and Charlie just might be a ghost.

And really your story starts here. When Amanda meets Emily Lawrence, she's astonished Emily can see her long time imaginary friend Charlie. But Emily says she can see Charlie cause she's a physic and Charlie's a ghost.

See the difference?

This is what I'm yapping about constantly when I say things like "tighten up" and "take out every word you don't need. What I'm asking for is momentum, a sense the story is rushing forward.

Using Emily’s abilities and what little Amanda knows about Charlie, they find out Charlie is Charlie O’Sullivan, a teen who went missing nearly 15 years ago. During her community service cleaning the small town police station, Amanda uncovers Charlie’s file, including the grisly pictures of the bedroom where he was kidnapped. Now that she knows who he is, Amanda must decide if finding out what happened to Charlie will help or hurt the only friend she had growing up.

This is honestly just flat out flat. I don't feel anything from what you're telling me here.

At Emily’s insistance, the girls continue to ask questions that Charlie and the police refuse to answer. Charlie’s parents hear that Amanda and Emily are asking questions about his dissappearance and want to meet with them. As Amanda and Emily get closer and closer to discovering his tragic past, Charlie’s sweetness quickly disappears and a violent spirit emerges.

You're telling not showing. What does Charlie DO?


A TORTURED SOUL is a paranormal YA novel complete at 66,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


This is miles ahead of the disaster that was the first version, but you've got to give me something enticing, not something flat.

You've demonstrated you can hear advice and revise, one of the things every good writer must have.

Now you get to try again.



----------------------
Dear Query Shark:

My name is Amanda. I'm 14, and I have an imaginary friend. Or at least that's what I thought Charlie was. In summer school, I met Emily, who swore two things: she's psychic and Charlie is a ghost.

I thought she was messing with me, but after finding a picture of Charlie online, I couldn't help but believe her.

As she and I delved into Charlie's past, he became increasingly more agitated, threatening us with violence. That is, until we uncovered what he tried so hard to hide, both in his lifetime and through his death.

CHARLIE'S SECRETS is a paranormal YA novel complete at 66,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerly,


Don't write query letters in the first person POV of your characters.  It's gimmicky, just like the example in #202 below.


Also, I'll give you a hundred bucks cold hard cash if you can produce a 14 year old who uses the word "delved" in conversation.

If you're writing a 14-year old character, you need to know how they talk: "Threatening us with violence" sounds like a sociologist; "told us he'd mess us up" sounds like what the kids on my corner say to each other.

This doesn't work at all. Start over.