Sunday, February 26, 2012

#221- revised

To _____________, Dear QueryShark:

Vuto is only 17 when her third child dies, mere days after birth.

Malawian tradition prevents men from considering a child their own until it’s lived for two weeks. Frustrated at not being able to speak to her husband, Solomon, about all three of the children she’s had to bury alone, Vuto forces him to acknowledge the dead baby. Her rejection of their culture causes Solomon and the village elders to banish Vuto from the only home she’s ever known. 

Vuto seeks refuge in the hut of U.S. Peace Corps volunteer Samantha Brennan, where Solomon discovers his wife has not left as she was told, leading him to attack both women. Disregarding her oath to remain uninvolved in village politics, Samantha interjects herself into the center of the conflict, defending Vuto and killing Solomon in the process.

This is your story----->The women go on the run from Vuto’s village and the Peace Corps, encountering physical, ethical and cultural struggles along the way.

How far in to the book does this occur? If it's more than 10,000 words, you've got too much set up and backstory.  This 'on the run' journey is the story. And of course, the question is where are they trying to go? 

Focus here, not the reason they're on the run.

Inspired by my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, Vuto falls into the women’s fiction category and is complete at 52,000 words.

52K is pretty short for a full novel. 

My self-published book, _____, received the Barnes and Noble Rising Star Award in 2009, placing it in stores on the east coast. My book ______ is being released by _____________ later this year.

Unless your book is a grizzly bear being released into the wild after an unfortunate encounter with beef cattle, it's most likely being published rather than released.  Also, you'll want to mention if that publisher has an option on this next book, and if you sold it without an agent.  

 There's still no sense of the story-what's at stake, and why we should care about the people involved. Real life does not a story make---and it's real hard to tell people that cause everyone thinks their own life is captivating.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


This is better but it's a form rejection.


To _______________:  Dear QueryShark:

Vuto loses her third child mere days after birth - and she's only 17 years old.

Unless Vuto left her child on the train, what you mean is the child died. You need to catch our interest here. Use the most powerful word that fits.  Vuto's third child dies mere days after birth.

You mention her age without context. "Only 17" implies she's very young to have three children--but early marriage is more common in the Malawi countryside than here in the US.  Without context, her age doesn't tell us anything other than a number.

The young Malawian woman Vuto forces her husband to acknowledge the baby, despite tradition that prevents men from considering a child their own until they've lived for at least two weeks. Her decision causes rifts in the village and Vuto's newfound feminism is lashed back against. She is banished and must come to terms with herself, her home and her loss.

You're telling us events, not a story. If you want us to care about the characters we have to know more about them than what happens.  Why did Vuto force her husband to do this? What is she trying to accomplish? Why does the village banish her?

"lashed back against" is as awkward as a giraffe on roller skates.

What does she must come to terms with her home mean?  If you have a series, each word has to belong as if the others are not there. She has to come to terms with herself/she has to come to terms with her loss--both those work. Her home doesn't.

Taking solace in the home of a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, a surprise attack by Vuto's husband leads to murder and an adventure neither the volunteer or Vuto herself had planned for.

Does the Peace Corps worker have a name? Does Vuto's husband? And do you mean "refuge" rather than "solace?" "Solace" implies Vuto finds comfort in this place, which would lead us to think she has some history here, or it has meaning beyond a safe place to be.

Details are what catch our interest. Without details,  this is a report not a story.

At 52,000 words, my book, Vuto, falls into the young adult fiction category and was inspired by an experience I had as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, Africa.

YA is not determined by length. It's determined by voice and content.  I'm not sure this is a YA novel at all. 

My self-published book, (title), received the Barnes and Noble Rising Star Award in 2009, placing it in stores along the east coast. My book (title 2) is being re-released by (publisher) later this year.

Please consider Vuto for publication.

Query letters that ask me to "publish" or "consider for publication" drive me bonkers.  I don't publish books.   Publishers publish books. I'm an agent. I represent authors.  This phrase smacks of carelessness.  Carelessness is a quality I am NOT seeking in new clients. Your query letter tells me about you as a writer, as well as about the book.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

#220-revised 1x

 Dear QueryShark:

When dinosaur rocker Doug Flynn croaks on stage at the end of his set, DJ Ronnie Fox is told by KXLA FM to wax poetic on the topic. Ronnie’s played this game before. What goes out over the airwaves sounds so sincere that he is chosen by listener Kellie Coogan. She sees Ronnie as the one person she wants to confide in about what she saw backstage the night Doug Flynn died: someone messing with Doug's personal stash.

I can hear you hitting your head on the desk and saying "but you told me to make the sentences shorter and here you are making them longer! What are you DOING, SharkForBrains?"

My reply is this: that's the first revision. Then you see it's a huge sentence. What ELSE can you take out without ruining the rhythm?

Here's the next revision:

What goes out over the airwaves sounds so sincere that he is chosen by listener Kellie Coogan. She sees Ronnie as the one person she wants to confide in about what she saw backstage the that night Doug Flynn died: someone messing with Doug's personal stash.

Revision is making a change, then making another change, then another. It's hard to see all the words that need to come out on just the first pass.

Ronnie handles what he sees as a potential for trouble in his usual fashion – he hangs up on her. Unfortunately, KXLA’s address can be Googled. Before Ronnie can make a clean getaway, Kellie shows up at the station. It turns out she’s not so bad looking, so Ronnie begrudgingly agrees to help Kellie prove Flynn was snuffed by what he sniffed.

The problem is someone saw Kellie backstage. They know she has something in her purse. In the span of a few short days Ronnie and Kellie will be drugged, mugged, tied, cuffed, stuffed, and boxed. Worst of all, Ronnie will have to spend the night at his parents’ house for the first time in more than a decade.

UNNATURAL ACT is a comic crime novel that comes in at 86,000 words. The book introduces Federal Agents Billy Dobson and Eldon Booth, who dive so deep undercover, they often forget that they are looking for criminals and not really members of a rock band, or Hollywood stuntmen, or pro surfers.

I have worked as a standup comic and as a comedy writer in radio. I am currently the producer of a weekly one-hour talk show on XM Radio that features conversations about aliens, ghosts and other paranormal phenomena.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Much improved.
I'd read pages.

Make SURE you've got your sentences in fighting trim before you send your query out. You don't want to be revising madly when you get requests for pages.

Dear (Your Name Here) QueryShark

Ronnie Fox hates answering the request line; all he hears from are drunks and late night security guards - and they all want something – free tickets or a few hundred bucks in cold, hard cash. On the night after dinosaur rocker Doug Flynn dies onstage during his comeback tour, Ronnie makes the mistake of feigning reverence and is chosen by listener Kellie Coogan, who was backstage and is certain of foul play.

You've punctuated this first sentence oddly. If you take out the phrase between the dashes the sentence doesn't make sense: "drunks and late night security guards free tickets or a few hundred bucks." A dash is like a parenthetical statement. If you take it out the remaining part of the sentence should stand on its own.

The way your sentences flow is the difference between fluid or clunky writing. Consider this: Ronnie Fox hates answering the request line. All he hears from are drunks and late night security guards. They all want something: free tickets or a few hundred bucks in cold, hard cash.

I really REALLY like the phrase dinosaur rocker. You'll earn extra eyeball time on a query with phrases like that. It gives me hope.

You're trying to get too much information in to that last sentence so it's awkward. Shorter sentences help.

So Ronnie does the adult thing – he hangs up on her. Unfortunately KXLA is listed in the phonebook and before Ronnie can make a clean getaway, Kellie shows up at the station. Reluctantly, Ronnie agrees to help Kellie prove Flynn was murdered, but not before undercover rockers and FBI agents Billy Dobson and Eldon Booth apprehend them, figuring the sack of cash makes them the criminals.

One of my biggest complaints about crime novels with amateur sleuths is the lack of a compelling reason for the sleuth to investigate. "Reluctantly Ronnie agrees" doesn't tell us anything. And you're missing an opportunity here: Ronnie agrees cause Kellie is cute; Ronnie agrees cause Kellie threatens his dog. In other words, the reason he agrees gives us a clue about character.

And then you have a sentence with 34 count 'em 34! words. In other words: a lonnnng ass sentence. There's a place for long ass sentences. Treatises on Faulkner come to mind. Generally they are NOT a good stylistic choice for a 250 word total query letter. Short and sweet is good.

UNNATURAL ACT is a comic crime novel that comes in at 86,000 words and moves at a rapid clip. It is the first of a planned series of books featuring Billy & Eldon, who dive so deep undercover, they often forget that they are looking for criminals and not really members of a rock band, or Hollywood stuntmen, or pro surfers.

Comic? Um. Well, ok, if you say so, but I really hate to see you set yourself up like that. Telling me something is funny (or comic) means I'm always asking "is this funny?"

SHOW me it's comic. Dinosaur rocker is a good start.

Don't tell me it moves at a rapid clip. Anyone who writes 33 word sentences is immediately dis-membered from the Rapid Clip Club.

Just to be cruel, I toted up the word count in your first eight sentences:

Before you get hot under the collar about this, let me just tell you that I learned about counting words in sentences from a guy who is damn fine writer: T. Jefferson Parker. He's got a couple of Edgar Awards that show I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Jeff Parker once told me that he counted sentences in paragraphs and words in sentences as a way to increase tension. At the climax, the sentences and the paragraphs got shorter; the words fewer. In other words: short crisp sentences are more energetic and keep the reader moving along at that rapid clip you want to claim.

So when you tell me your book moves at a rapid clip, but what I see are looooong sentences, I conclude (perhaps erroneously) that you want your book to move along, but your sentences aren't actually doing the job.  Show me a brisk query; I'll show a book that moves along at a good clip.  SHOW don't TELL.

planned series of books featuring Billy & Eldon

WHOA! Holy CANNOLI!! WAIT. Leave the Cannoli, bring the gun! The protagonists are the FBI guys?

You introduce not one but TWO other characters, neither of whom are the antagonist before you bring on the main guys?

The problem with this is not that you break the rules. I'm happy to have you do that if you can make it work. The problem is we know nothing now about the guys who carry the story. We're all intrigued by Kellie the either hot-maiden or cold-conniver, and Ronnie Fox, depressed DJ, only to find out those aren't the main guys.

You've got to add more information about these good fellas if they're the main guys. 

The author has I have toiled as a standup comic, as a comedy writer in radio and is currently the producer of a one-hour talk show on XM Radio that features conversations about aliens, ghosts and other paranormal phenomena. He keeps his own beliefs close to the vest.

Don't talk about yourself in the third person. The QueryShark finds it annoying.

I don't care what you keep close to your vest. I only care about your book.

Thank you for your consideration. I have enclosed ... (whatever the particular agent has requested per their submission requirements)

I don't have a real sense of this book from the query. It's not enticing cause it's too sprawled out. Four characters, no antagonist, no sense of what's at stake.

I might read pages if you sent them with your query but sadly, if I'm not utterly delighted with a turn of phrase on every one of those pages you send, I'll probably say no with a form rejection.

And those long sentences just fill me with despair.

This is a blisteringly tough category to break into and you've got to be spot-on from the get go.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Dear Query Shark:

My name is  (redacted). I am a junior currently enrolled at (redacted) in (city)  (state.)

I always hate to see a query writer put their age in a query. I particularly hate it when the query writer is young. Nothing good comes of this. Agents aren't looking for "young"; they're looking for good projects. 

Your project needs to stand on its own. And, it's possible if not likely that a good project will be summarily rejected because of your age. There are many published novelists who are young of course. The one I am most familiar with (Kody Keplinger) did not include her age in her query.

I'm almost 100% certain to reject a project if the querier is this young (you're 16 or 17 I assume.)  I don't want to inflict my sharkly self on kids.  I know you don't think of yourself as a kid, but I do.  There's time enough for you to be brutalized by the real world. College for starters.  
So, don't give me the chance to not fall in love with your work by leading with your age.

This applies only to kids who are nearly adults-16 and 17.

If you're under 16, do tell me.  I don't form reject anyone under 16. I reject them, but always with encouragement. 

I have recently completed an 80,000 word novel, Point Blank, an adult, military fictional piece implementing a technique of suspense similarly found in a Michael Crichton thriller, yet also containing a strong moral backbone that deals with racism found between cultures. The story relates greatly to the present political and economic situations in the US, and brings up a possible scenario of what might happen if compromises aren’t reached soon.

This sounds so formal that it's off-putting. And it's not enticing. Start with the name of the main character. Tell me what challenges he faces.

I don't care much about the themes of your novel. I care if it's enticing.

Economic fallout and political turmoil arise in the year 2014 after China refuses to let the US debt ceiling rise any further. War breaks out in 2017, and by 2022, the United States has initiated mandatory drafts for the first time since the Cold War.

Joseph Stephenson, a twenty-three year old American computer specialist, was drafted and has just finished going through training camp. The US has invaded Chinese soil and is pushing an aggressive campaign to cover the entire Chinese nation. In order to see this goal through, a new system of warfare has been initiated by the US government. Soldiers’ kills are tracked and used to create currency-like points.

Start with Joseph Stephenson. He's drafted. He finds himself in a deadly competition for survival.

These points then become the key to survival. A soldier’s supply of food, water, and ammo, even his opportunity to go home, are all dictated by the number of points he has. This system, kept hidden from public eye, has chained soldiers to the battlefield, turning heroes of peace and freedom into mechanized murderers. Now, trapped in the heart of this twisted conflict with no food, no water, and no way home, Joseph Stephenson must fight not only for his next breath, but also because he stands as the only soldier in this corrupt war with the ability to restore justice to the collapsing system he is shackled to.

You're missing a key point here: what is Joseph Stephenson's ability, and why is he blocked from using it?

I recently submitted a modified and shortened chapter of Point Blank to a local literary festival competition and won. This piece can be provided upon your request. I am also able to provide my complete manuscript and a synopsis if you would like.

Send what the agent asks for in the submission guidelines.

I read that you are looking for a good, well written commercial fiction thriller, filled with a dexterity of voice and a powerful narrative push, and my story, through its reinvention of the typical war story formula, mastery over tone and voice, deep connection to modern day politics, and revival of the moral questioning of war, fulfills your requests, so I hope it is a good match for you.

Don't tell me why I'm going to like your novel; show me. That means tell me about the book in a way that makes me want to read it. When you urge your friends to read a book you've loved you don't ever say "it's a good, well written commercial fiction thriller filled with dexterity of voice and a powerful narrative push with master of tone and voice...etc."  A query letter must be enticing, not a analysis of the prose.

Thank you for your time. I hope very much to work with you and look forward to hearing from you.

Respectfully yours,

This query doesn't have much verve to it. You're trying to hard to be formal and businesslike. Cut loose. Give us something to chew on.

Revise. Resend.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Dear Query Shark,

What would happen if you and your child had a train set that could magically shrink you down to size?

You will be killed and eaten by the QueryBunny if you open your query with a rhetorical question. There's nothing like a rhetorical question to make the QueryBunny reach for the picnic hamper.

The QueryBunny and her picnic hamper filled with Hapless Writer Salads.

In our picture book, THE MAGIC TRAIN, Jorgen and his donut-loving daddy shrink to become the engineer and brakeman of the Magic Train. They zoom, clank, puff, and roar upstairs, downstairs, through all the bedrooms, and even into the garage. They encounter sleeping dolls, an erupting volcano, delicious crumbs in the kitchen, and a problem that can only be solved with a chocolate donut.

This is one of the best paragraphs I've seen about a picture book. I love the energetic words: Zoom! Clank! Puff! Roar! (it sounds like morning coffee at the Reef) I love the humor.

THE MAGIC TRAIN is a 620 words picture book that is a joy to read aloud to a train-loving 3-7 year old.

You''ve shown me that.  You don't need to tell me again.

We have included in this email the manuscript** and a picture book dummy featuring page layout and illustrations by Illustrious Illustrator. II's artwork has been published in  This place and That place Magazines. He held a children’s book design fellowship at Publisher. Illustrious illustrator also worked as an assistant to Uber-Illustrator the award-winning illustrator of Fabulous Book.

We believe that the unique voice and distinctive illustration style of this book would be a good fit for the Query Shark Literary Agency. THE MAGIC TRAIN will appeal to parents and children who also enjoy Dinosaur Train, Shark vs. Train and other books inspired by playtime make-believe worlds.

I assume that if you query me, you think we're a good fit. You don't need to tell me again. 

Although we hope you would consider our text and illustrations as a package, we understand and respect your preference to select illustrations. We are willing to have the manuscript and artwork considered separately.

We are submitting the manuscript and illustrated dummy to multiple publishers and agents simultaneously.

NO! NO! NO!   Do not submit to publishers while you submit to agents.  This handicaps your future agent in ways you do not want to imagine.  If a publisher turns you down pre-agent-snag, it's hard for the agent to go back and say "yanno, you made a terrible mistake saying no to this."  Query agents first.

Thank you for your consideration,

**Notice that ALL the text of the book is included in the query.  That's the right thing to do. 

This is an excellent example of a query for a picture book. 
Polish it up, and you're good to go.