Sunday, January 28, 2018


I’ve worked and re-worked the pasted query below. It’s on the long side but I’m not sure what to cut.

Dear QueryShark:
Before Commander Alexander Price’s foot sinks into Martian soil, he spots a black-tentacled probe take off from the planet’s surface. Samantha and Harriet, the other two astronauts on the first manned mission to Mars, didn't see it, and no one back home believes him.

This  entire query clocks in at 339 words so it's not completely outside the ballpark for word count.  That said, it can use some tightening. How do you tighten a query?

First, simple declarative sentences are your secret weapon.

Consider: Alexander Price, commander of the first manned mission to Mars, spots a a black-tentacled probe take off from the surface as he and the other two astronauts arrive. Neither of them see it . No one believes him.

44 to 39 words. Not much BUT you've tightened the narrative here in two ways. You've simplified the sentences and reduced the word count.

Alexander is ostracized and mocked for his wild claims by NASA but not Samantha, who carried his unconscious body through a storm on Mars, risking her own life because she loves him. During the day he obsesses about what aliens might be plotting and why NASA is hiding the data. Every night he dreams of fanged tentacles ripping him apart. He turns to Sam, and not drugs, to provide refuge from his nightly demons. 

He's not ostracized. Ostracized means to exclude someone. It's clear Samantha isn't excluding him.

You're also awash in details. Too many details overwhelm the query.What do we need to know here?
We need to know that NASA mocks him. That's ALL we need to know.

74 words down to 11.

Determined to prove he isn’t crazy and find out the truth, he steals data from NASA’s new administrator, Harriet, risking jail time and the little dignity he has left.

Unless Harriet is on Mars, you've got a location problem here. When last we saw Alex, he was on Mars.

Did you notice that you use the full name  of your main character, the man, but only first names for the lady characters? In case you're wondering, that's something I notice, and draw conclusions about. Those conclusions are not in your favor.

NASA's data show some thing is watching Earth, and it lives in the Alpha Centauri system. Harriet realises the implications of the data, forgives Alexander and asks him to join her on an interstellar mission. By the time he gets there, eighty years would have passed on Earth. Samantha, the love of his life, will be long dead.

Here's where I stop reading. The logic of this plot eludes me. 
What does the black-tentacled probe on Mars have to do with anything here?
Why is Harriet in possession of data that only one man seems able to interpret. From what I know about NASA, there are some pretty smart people working there, and it boggles my mind to imagine that anyone would have data that no one else has seen. NASA is not a solitary sport.

Why would the administrator of NASA be on an interstellar flight at all? Isn't that why there are astronauts?

The folks who read science fiction are pretty picky about facts. They'll give you the big leap of imagination (interstellar flight for people is a reality) but the little facts (like how NASA works) have to be right.

The dark mystery he wants to solve on Alpha Centauri’s planets may provide personal redemption and vindication for abandoning Samantha. Or he may have pursued a ghost he only imagined in the stolen data.

This is the gist of the plot I think. What's the mystery on Alpha Centauri?

Also, "abandoning Samantha" makes me kind of crazy. If Alexander's job is being an astronaut, and he's asked to go on a mission, he's not abandoning Samantha, he's doing his job. Clearly there are some sacrifices (given she'll be dead when he comes back, IF he gets back) but it's not like he's leaving her for the lady next door.

THE FINAL JUDGMENT is a 90,000-word SF novel with series potential. This first contact story will appeal to fans of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s, Children of Time and Emma Newman’s SF mystery, Planetfall.

I drew on my experience working with narcissists-in-denial to create my characters.

This is the best line in the query and makes me think you probably have a pretty good sense of humor. 

I, on the other hand, am a down-to-Earth omnipotent surgeon. I use my scientific background to weave real science into stories.

(Insert personalisation for the agent)
Don't waste your time on trying to personalize queries. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Kind Regards,

The problem isn't word count. The problem is you haven't told me about the plot. You've told me about Alexander who seems entirely too drippy to be an astronaut.

It seems to me that the plot is what are those guys on Alpha Centauri up to, how do we find out, and do we need to interfere?

What you've got here is the set up, but not the plot.

In answer to your question, here's how to cut words from a query:

1. Use simple declarative sentences to build the foundation of your query.
2. Talk about the ONE thing we need to know about the book.
3. Add detail only when needed for clarity.

Sunday, January 21, 2018



1) This novel has a lot of action, but it's about the complications and mounting tension in the main character's life. You mention a thriller has larger stakes than one person's life, so how would you categorize this? Suspense?

2) The book has 3 acts with tension and stakes building. This query is about the final conflict. Is that okay?

3) I feel the current title would grab attention, but is it a bad idea to tip my hand? Other titles I've considered include DISARMING THE BEASTS, and PREDATOR'S TITHE.

4) While the protagonist is a woman, I don't consider this is chick lit. Cassie is an emotionally damaged, socially awkward Jason Bourne with a medical degree. Should I query chick lit agents or stick to thriller/suspense (or however you categorize this?)

Dear QueryShark:

Cassiopeia Gordon (Cassie) has spent 12 years trying to erase one night—not easy for someone with a photographic memory. When she was an 18-year-old virgin, her drill instructor savagely raped her.

One thing that just drives me bonkers is listing a character's name and then her (nickname) in parentheses. This is not a newspaper article or a police report. Call your character what you call her in the book: Cassie Gordon.

A close second on the bonkers list is putting a character's age in parens for the same reasons. You avoided that here, thankfully.

And I'm not sure why you mention her memory; it doesn't seem to be a plot point later on. And no one needs a photographic memory to have problems forgetting a savage rape. 

Determined she'll never be victimized again, Cassie has trained relentlessly in hand-to-hand combat, while becoming a trauma surgeon to repair bodily damage. Those skills and a facility for language have led her to join an elite Marine strike force where she proudly keeps her team members safe.

This is a total hodge podge of information. She's trained relentlessly so she'll never be a victim, and then becomes a trauma surgeon to repair bodily damage? Whose body? Trauma surgeons by definition are repairing damage. You don't need to say both things.

She's a member of an elite Marine strike force and a trauma surgeon? Really? Where did she find the time? Oh and she's got a facility for languages. And let's not forget the photographic memory.

You're making the classic mistake here of creating a caricature, not a character. A character's flaws are what make her interesting, not the fact that she's superwoman in camouflage scrubs.

A more interesting story is how someone who ISN'T Superwoman responds to an attack and seeks vengeance.

Now the CIA has recruited Cassie to join its operation. Onboarding will happen at headquarters near where Cassie's best friend lives. Not only is Melody the closest thing Cassie has to family, she's also the only person who really understands Cassie's past. A fellow victim of the serial rapist drill sergeant, Melody has channeled her experience into helping others as a rape counselor.

When a series of Melody's clients reveal their attackers admitted—even bragged about—the number of women they've raped, Melody can take no more. If the system won't stop these monsters, Melody decides she must.

Why won't the system stop these monsters? It's not as though rape is the unspoken-of crime it was 40 years ago. Women and men report rapes all the time. What makes these beyond the law?

Though equally sickened by the revelations, Cassie recognizes the dangers of Melody's plan and tries to dissuade her—unsuccessfully.

What's Melody's plan? Kill the rapists. I'm very much in favor of that. Slowly too. This is where the book would get much more interesting: how these lovely ladies take their revenge, and what it costs them (ie what's at stake for them.)  You can't brutalize the brutalizer without being yourself becoming a brutalizer. 

If Cassie doesn't act, the only sister she's ever had could be imprisoned for the rest of her life. To save Melody, Cassie will have to break the law and risk losing everything — her medical license, CIA career, her freedom, and possibly the only man she's ever loved.

Melody will get imprisoned only if she's caught, right? So Cassie's dilemma is whether to report her, try to stop her, or do nothing. You need to be specific about what's at stake here for each of those choices. Breaking the law brings possible prison. Losing her medical license, her career? What's the down side of that for her? 

You've created a too-good-to-true character and set her up as an avenging angel. This is textbook first novel syndrome. A character has to have some flaws to be interesting. She has to make tough choices. Maybe even wrong choices. There's really nothing better than someone doing good for the wrong reason and getting in trouble for it.

Also, the villains here have zero nuance. Thus they are uninteresting. This is why it's very very hard to write compellingly about child abuse and sex crimes. The perpetrators aren't all that interesting; they're just ugly souls I don't want to spend much time with. 

It tells you something that a lot of people thought Omar the rip and run artist was the most interesting character on The Wire; that Satan is more interesting than Christ in Milton's Paradises Lost and Found.

What makes both Omar and Satan interesting is the choices they make. We have sympathy for them. We see their flaws. We know they're doing the wrong thing, but we see why they are doing it.

DISMEMBRISTS is a 95,000 word adult thriller exploring themes of trauma, vulnerability, friendship, betrayal, sacrifice, and love.

Mentioning themes in a query is not the way to go. Tell me about the story.

This is my first novel, though I've spent 20+ years conceiving and writing advertising. After reading so many accounts of campus and military sexual assault, I had to write a response. This is it, in time for the #MeToo movement.

Even if I sold this book tomorrow, it wouldn't be on the shelves for another 12-18 months. Don't put anything in your query that will make me think it's going to be outdated any time soon. And sorry to say, what's of interest to people in social media today doesn't always last. Do I hope we continue to talk about sexual violence? Damn straight I do. But don't bet your query on it.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

1) This novel has a lot of action, but it's about the complications and mounting tension in the main character's life. You mention a thriller has larger stakes than one person's life, so how would you categorize this? Suspense?

Suspense novels have an uncertain outcome. Generally in a thriller we know Our Hero will prevail, we just don't know how, or at what cost. In suspense novels we're not so sure of the outcome. This is neither a thriller nor a novel of suspense. It's a crime novel.

2) The book has 3 acts with tension and stakes building. This query is about the final conflict. Is that okay?

No. You want to tell me about what happens in the first act. If you're querying with what happens at the end of the book, it's sign that you don't have enough plot or enough at stake. 

3) I feel the current title would grab attention, but is it a bad idea to tip my hand? Other titles I've considered include DISARMING THE BEASTS, and PREDATOR'S TITHE.

Don't worry about the title. But yes, the one you have makes the book sound like a horror novel. That said, I don't even consider the title when I'm looking at a query. This isn't even close to the terrible titles that actual clients have chosen for their mss (yes, they got changed!)

4) While the protagonist is a woman, I don't consider this is chick lit. Cassie is an emotionally damaged, socially awkward Jason Bourne with a medical degree. Should I query chick lit agents or stick to thriller/suspense (or however you categorize this?)

This literally made me laugh out loud. You don't know what chick lit is do you? It's ok if you don't, it's a term that has to be learned like everything else. It's not a character flaw to not know everything. But chick lit is a term for  girl comes to city for job, finds love, battles love and bad boyfriends. In other words, books where the main character is the polar opposite of Jason Bourne.

Before you query anyone I'd suggest revising both the query and making sure the novel has enough plot, and three dimensional characters. I think you've got a problem there that this query illuminates.

Saturday, January 13, 2018


I've been wading in the shark tank for countless hours, slushing through every single archived post. My eyes sting and I'm dehydrated from all the salt water, but it's been worth it! Harpooning all the advice in the archives, I've brutalized my original query so much that I feel as vicious as a Great White. Still, writing can always be improved!

Q1: Way back in the archives you asked an author why he/she would look for an agent if they already have 19 published novels. Do you think the sentence after my bio explains why I'm seeking representation? Is it okay to leave in?

Q2: Agents are looking for ethnically diverse characters, especially in children's stories and fantasy, right? I touch on this in the query AND state it in the housekeeping part. Is this okay or am I stuffing it in the agent's face?

Dear Query Shark,

In the realm of Edynfell there are magical beings called larsts. Conrad doesn't know what larsts are or that he's supposed to be one. In fact, Conrad knows very little about himself. Is he black, white, or mixed race? Is he actually thirteen years old?

The only thing Conrad knows for sure is he's stuck in Pennsylvania's Foster Care system. When he's adopted under bizarre circumstances, he discovers larsts, his own incredible background, and Edynfell.

I like that second paragraph a whole lot better than the first. It gives me a MUCH better idea of the story.  Even if you just switch the order, you'll be better off.

Conrad faces more than magic and monsters in this medieval-like realm. All teenage boys must train for the honor of becoming a knight, but greater things are at stake than knighthood. There are two possible larsts who can unite the divided clans of Edynfell: Conrad and a powerful dark larst whose cruel heart will destroy the realm.

This is all set up and background. I know you want to get us into the world, but it's more important to introduce us to Conrad so that we care about what happens to him. You haven't done that here yet.

This is also pretty abstract. Why are the clans divided? Why does anyone care? Why do they need to be united? Why are we so sure Conrad isn't the dark larst? (Now THAT would be a good story!)

The clans will unite when the twelve missing jewels from the Crest of Edynfell are collected. The problem is Conrad's lack of powers keeps him from believing he's a larst. Conrad needs to have faith in himself and his new friends to unite Edynfell before darkness rules.

Well, that's just not enough to carry a book. Something has to be at stake here, even in a middle grade novel. Something has to be at stake for us to care about what happens to the characters.  

Also, if he doesn't have powers, how is he a larst?
And what does his being multi-racial (paragraph one) have to do with anything? I actually like it better when race is just something a character is, not a plot point. But that means you don't mention his racial makeup till the housekeeping section since it's not a key part of the story.

CONRAD OF EDYNFELL: THE KING'S JEWEL is a MG fantasy with 75,000 words and has potential to be a series. The protagonist is bi-racial and I understand agents are seeking ethnically diverse characters.

Please leave out any kind of statement about what we're looking for. We know what we're looking for.

I am an experienced author of twelve published novels with Small Company Pubbing Books Inc. I am seeking representation to help grow my career into larger publishing companies and wider distribution. 

You want someone who can grow your career. You don't need to say anything else.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

This just doesn't stand out. It's not terrible. It's not even bad. But it's not fresh and new. It doesn't do what a query must do: entice me to read on. I don't read a lot of mg fantasy, but I've started to recently, and the ones that just heat up my enthusiasm teapot are the ones where I really care what happens to the characters. I don't care about Conrad yet, so this query  isn't effective yet.

Yes, we're looking for books with diverse characters, but that's in addition to a compelling plot, not in lieu of.

I think the problem here is the book, not the query.

As to your questions:

Q1: Way back in the archives you asked an author why he/she would look for an agent if they already have 19 published novels. Do you think the sentence after my bio explains why I'm seeking representation? Is it okay to leave in?

Yup. Yup.
You can actually leave it out too unless you want me looking up sales figures for your previous books.

Q2: Agents are looking for ethnically diverse characters, especially in children's stories and fantasy, right? I touch on this in the query AND state it in the housekeeping part. Is this okay or am I stuffing it in the agent's face?

Just tell me about the story. You can leave out anything about what I'm looking for. 

Sunday, January 7, 2018


It has taken me countless edits of this query to get it where it is now, but it still garners no positive responses. I am wondering if I'm doing anything jarringly wrong and have yet to realize it. I also have a specific concern about mentioning so many characters and plot points in the query that may or may not make it confusing.

Dear Query Shark,

America in 2050 has never been in a better state, but military prodigy Alyssa Scarlet is at her very worst.

Let's start with military prodigy. Prodigy is generally defined as someone who demonstrate an exceptional talen at an early age. Mozart is the go-to example. Shirley Temple was another.

Your use of it here doesn’t tell me anything. Is Alyssa a six-year-old sniper? A twelve-year old general? (ok, that's a bad example, cause ALL twelve-year-olds think they're the family general.)

And it's quibbling, I know, but describing a country as being "in a better state" sounds off to me, given that states are geographical components of a country. At first glance when you hear America and state in the same sentence it's confusing. This is the kind of writing that tells me you're not stepping back to look at this with an objective eye. You know what you mean here and you're assuming/believing/hoping everyone else will too.

Revision is where you step back and think: how can someone misunderstand this, and then fixing/clarifying/changing words. (I should mention it took me YEARS to learn this, and only after daily blog posts with comments from readers that showed they didn't get what I was bumbling around trying to say.)

The pressures of being a politician’s goddaughter are becoming unbearable, especially with her obsessive compulsivity tearing away at her heart.


This sentences has NO connection to the preceding sentence. Unless being a politician also means you're in the military.

And "obsessive compulsivity" makes me reach for my grammar school instructions for sentence diagramming. In other words you've stopped communicating and started confusing. This is NOT what you want to do in a query.

Sentences and paragraphs should flow one from another UNLESS you're deliberately veering to a new place for effect.

At this point, Alyssa’s not sure if she has one left, which is what makes her the perfect goddaughter to a crime lord.

One what?

And here's where I stop reading.

You've got a lot of description but nothing is clear.

But to be the perfect goddaughter, Alyssa must commit a number of crimes.

I'm pretty sure I've never asked any goddaughter of mine to commit a crime. On the surface this sentence is ridiculous. If there's a reason GodPops wants Alyssa out on a crime spree, you need to tell us. It's not something your reader will intuit.

She reluctantly accepts a job with her older sister, Avarice, a girl perpetually stuck in a place between mania and depression. Their latest target: murder Jason Drake and steal Excalibur, the sword of lightning. Unfortunately for them, criminal prodigy Jason Drake is at the best he’s ever been. At least, that’s what he tells himself.

None of this makes sense. You've got too much information without answering the basic questions of plot: What does Alyssa want and what's keeping her from getting it?

Also, two main characters with sound-alike names is something I'd always ask you to change before a ms went on submission (Alyssa/Avarice.) And using Avarice as a name sounds like a Puritan morality tale where Prudence and Chastity the blacksmith's daughters are subjected to the advance of Lewd and Lust the sons of the town's evil overlord. In other words, consider a name change.

Jason has his personal demons, but he doesn’t let them stop him from doing what he does best.

Personal demons is such a cliché that one of my colleagues started saying she'd only consider manuscripts with professional caliber demons. No more amateurs.

Thievery is practically his middle name, and his next target is Excalibur. But getting past security is the least of his problems. Jason has to think of a way to get away from his controlling older brother, Connor, and the very pretty girl who is after his sword and his heart— quite literally. And those are the things he knows about. Neither Jason nor Alyssa know about the sequestered elves with a vendetta. The island of Avalon has a war to win, and they’re willing to sacrifice the human side of their captives in order to forge the perfect weapons. Alyssa and Jason must find a way off the island, or depend on their families to rescue them, which may end in disaster.

Since I've stopped reading, I won't see this but again you've got so much information here that my head is spinning. Focus!

Excalibur and Avalon are specific names we associate with an established story. Unless you're retelling that story, with a new twist, it's better to have your own names for things.

To help her find the pair, Avarice enlists the help of Jade, a schizophrenic girl who calls the basement her Wonderland, and Connor, the boy who is practically married to his money. Their goals are clear in the beginning, but the underhanded politics of their nation beg the question of where their loyalties really lie, ensuing America’s second civil war. Even if Alyssa and Jason escape Avalon, will they ever escape war?

I need a sword of lightning here to cut through the underbrush. You've got five named characters (three is the most you should have) not counting the swords and the locations.

THE LIGHTNING INHERENT is a YA Science-Fiction novel that includes LGBT themes, racial diversity, characters with mental illness, and social justice themes that give the book a dark contemporary twist.

Social justice is dark? Really? I'm pretty sure that's not what you meant to convey.

THE LIGHTNING INHERENT is complete at 95,000 words and is available upon request.

Of course it's available on request. You don't need to state the obvious.

Thank you in advance for your consideration,

This is over written.

It reads like a first draft, and yes, I know you have worked on it but you haven't honed it down to the essentials. Revise OUT everything that isn't about Alyssa and Jason. Focus on the main story.

And yes, you have entirely too many characters and plot points.

Revise, resend.