Sunday, July 15, 2018


The first person viewpoint character of my novel is blind but the story is not about her blindness. It’s just something she happens to be. I know it’s a selling point, but it’s not a plot point.

Originally, I had it as a logline (A blind girl and her best friend…) Now, I’m having trouble fitting it back in earlier in the query. Is it too far down?

At the end I talk mention the blurb Brandon Sanderson promised-- is that worth including? It’s not a lie, but I’m worried it’s not relevant or I’m jumping the gun.

Dear Query Shark,

When something from  space (missing word) and lands in the parking lot outside the pizza shop, Meg knows she’s in trouble.

You're missing a verb here. As I read your query that kind of typo stands out like a pink flamingo on Astroturf.  It leads me to form some opinions about your work and they're not good.

 I cannot over stress the ironclad necessity of making sure these kind of glitches get revised out. We ALL leave out verbs, make typos, have too many thats, and discover errant the thes in our writing. The trick is to REVISE those errors out.

Other than that, this is pretty funny.

But when a boy who smells like spearmint invites her to see his band and her boy-crazy, best friend, June, overhears? Meg knows she’s screwed.

And this is splat. The second paragraph should build on the first. You have an alien space craft (or something!) landing in the parking lot. Your BFF hearing a boy invite you to a concert is pretty anti climatic.

The solution? Leave it out. Move directly to the next paragraph.

There’s rumblings in town that something like this (the object from space, not the boy) without the second paragraph you don't need the parenthetical has happened before. Also, their new friend, Sev, a zoologist from the team sent to investigate, seems to know much more than he’s letting on.

Together, the three of them must unravel the mystery behind the object that fell—and they’re not the only ones searching.

Why do they have to unravel the mystery? What's at stake if they don't? Unicorns will go extinct?

And, it all has to happen before Meg’s “date” (June’s words) at Battle of the Bands this weekend.

Why? What's so important about this concert?

 THE DODO AND THE SPACESHIP OUTSIDE is a lighthearted YA, slice-of-life novel interrupted by the arrival of a sci-fi adventure in the parking lot outside.

One of the things agents say at writers conferences panels about queries goes like this: "I was reading this terrific manuscript, pretty sure it was a rom-com, then all of a sudden, aliens arrive in Chapter 14. That's why I ask writers to submit a synopsis."

And here you are with aliens interrupting a rom com, but you've kindly put it in chapter one.

You're trying to be witty here. Oh hell you ARE witty. But the purpose of a query isn't to show your wit, it's to entice me to read your novel. You're undercutting that here by using the word "interrupted." 

It’s all experienced though the ears, hands, and nose of Meg, who is blind.

It is completed at 60,000 words. Comparables are “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” meets “Steelheart.”

I’m currently a creative copywriter at (Big Ass and Famous), a large advertising agency. This novel was workshopped over a semester under (Good writer) and he has promised a blurb once it’s published. As an LGBTQ+ minority, I’m also passionate about including those narratives in my work.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Your questions:
The first person viewpoint character of my novel is blind but the story is not about her blindness. It’s just something she happens to be. I know it’s a selling point, but it’s not a plot point.

Originally, I had it as a logline (A blind girl and her best friend…) Now, I’m having trouble fitting it back in earlier in the query. Is it too far down?

No. You handle it very deftly. Since the book is NOT about her blindness, you don't lead with that.

At the end I talk mention the blurb Brandon Sanderson promised-- is that worth including? It’s not a lie, but I’m worried it’s not relevant or I’m jumping the gun.

It's worth a mention because he's OFFERED the blurb. Where you'd run into trouble is if he'd already blurbed it. You can't ask an author twice and often books are revised and reshaped in the acquisition and editorial process such that the book read before sending out to agents is much different than the book now on its way to bookstores.  There's a longer blog post about that here.

There's essentially no plot on the page here, and even in a rom-com, you must have a plot, or what's at stake for the characters.  You've got the wit; now we need some substance.

Queries can have frothy whipped cream but it's got to be on top of the hot chocolate, not in place of it.

Revise, resend.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018


Dear Query Shark:

Question: My plan was to give potential agents the ability to read up to 1/3 of the book instantly. Eight years ago, you said not to include active links, but it’s very common now. Is this acceptable? Active is much easier because email software will turn parts of a URL into what looks like active links, but they don’t work, which could be confusing. This is what a non-active link could look like:

To read up to 88 pages of the book on Zoho TeamDrive, go to (add https:// at beginning and paste into browser) and enter the password (redacted)

Is this a good idea or a bad one? I’ve made this a real link/password for the Shark in case she wants to see how it works.

Thank you for making query writing educational and entertaining. You can chomp my arm off now (left please since I write with my right).

You're solving a problem that doesn't exist.

If I want to read your manuscript all I have to do is hit Reply to your email, and ask you to come to my house and read it. And about 50% of all y'all would be there within an hour.

Alternatively, I can just email you to send the manuscript as a word doc. In other words, the system works fine, don't screw around with it unless asked to do so.

The only reason I can think of that made you want to do this is being afraid you'll miss the email requesting the full. Unless you are headed for a long prison term, on a voyage to Mars, or stalking the wild asparagus in Borneo, you'll be available enough to send something.  I don't need the manuscript the instant I read your query. I generally read queries in batches, and requested fulls when I've set aside a block of time.

So, there's no  real reason you need this PLUS it's a  TERRIBLE idea and you should never do it because it marks you as a crackpot who thinks "follow the damn directions" doesn't apply to you. I'm sure that's not the real you, so don't do stuff that makes people think so.

Also, I like to have the manuscript here on my hard drive so I can adjust the font, clear out all the crazy margins you set, insert double spacing, AND be able to send it back to you with some notes marked in track changes. In other words, what I ask for is what I want, and what I want is not arbitrary or whimsical.

Dear Mr./Ms. Agent Name:

Things 15-year-old Josh Taylor didn’t see coming:

A mom who doesn’t know him.
A clone in the kitchen that looks exactly like him.
A dead father who’s very much alive.

It’s like he wandered into the Twilight Zone . . . or a seriously messed up after-school special. He’s knocked unconscious and wakes up in a world where supernatural creatures live among humans, technology has advanced by a couple decades, and even his family is different.

This is actually pretty good, and enticing.

An angel, named Zed, claims he’s a champion with the power to manipulate matter and energy. And he thinks that’s ridiculous — until he sends kids flying with a wave of his hand and strikes a tree with lightning. An ancient prophecy declares he’s destined to liberate a powerful sword, and he easily frees it. But it’s engraved with a freaky warning: “In the wrong hands this is a weapon of mass destruction. Protect it at all costs.”

Now he’s got a list of things he never thought he’d do:

Make it rain in the school gym.
Heal his friend’s cat-dog hybrid.
Steal a priceless artifact from a museum.
Battle a 5322-year-old changeling at the zoo.

And those were the easy parts. Something invisible is stalking Josh. Angels fight over him, try to recruit him, and force him into dangerous situations to test his powers. Even his home isn’t safe — with a spiteful AI in charge. And vampires and aliens want to steal the weapon, and they threaten to kill him and his family and friends to get it. Josh must learn to use his superpowers quickly, because if he fails, everyone and everything he loves could be lost.

TITLE — a 93,000-word YA alternate-universe adventure — is my first novel. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Angels, vampires and aliens. And Artificial Intelligence. You've got a LOT of weird here. Often the best plots are pretty simple. You don't need fusion cooking for a tasty treat (Brussels sprouts, raisins, walnuts with ice cream!); you need really simple but delicious ingredients. Corn on the cob. Butter. A napkin.

Over stuffing the plot is something I see in writers early in their career. It takes confidence to pare down, and confidence takes a while to build.

It's not your lunatic page link that will earn you a pass here; it's the overly elaborate plot.

Revise. Resend. And ditch the link idea forever.

Sunday, July 1, 2018


Question Re: contact info. Should a tumblr be included? I have over 2k followers, but it's mostly fandom content. And what about fanfiction? I've been writing for 17 years and I have stories that have close to 50k hits online, and several hundred likes and comments. But I also know that a lot of people see fanfiction as taboo. Should I reference it, or am I better off not mentioning it at all?

One last question - when submission guidelines ask for pages, should they always be double spaced, even if the submission guidelines don't say either way?

Dear Query Shark,

Rosie’s pretty sure it would take magic to help her publish a novel at this point. Her best friend, Adelaide, always said she had it in her. But to be honest, Rosie hasn’t written a word since Addy died two years ago. Right now, she has less chance of publishing a book than she has of landing a decent date on Tinder. And that’s saying something.

Novels about writers are really tricky. Only writers care about whether someone publishes a novel. And writers aren't your audience here: readers are.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a doctor once at a writing conference. I asked what the stakes were in his novel. He said in a horrified voice "he will lose his hospital privileges!" The writer/doctor was shocked to his shoes when I said no one would care about that.

My point here is the book needs to be about more then whether Rosie gets published.

Theo has worked as a muse at Muses Inc. for two hundred years. Now, at last, his contract is almost up. He just needs to sign one more writer and he can get back to his life, to his own writing, to his freedom. But his boss, Calliope, doesn’t share his enthusiasm, and seems determined to make him stay, whatever the cost.

 This is actually a much more interesting start to the query. But what is Calliope's problem here? She doesn't like writers all of a sudden? Last I looked, she's the muse of Poets et al.

When Rosie inadvertently summons Theo, the two of them end up thrown into The Sandbox, a world where Rosie’s writing comes to life. The only way back home is to follow the story through to the end. Cue hybrid monsters, fire mages, fairy queens and one seriously manipulative Greek goddess.

So, what's the plot here? Rosie wants to get published. Got that. Theo wants out of Muses Inc. Got that. Who's running the Sandbox (ie the antagonist)? And by Greek goddess do you mean Calliope, cause she's a muse, not a goddess.

Rosie’s pretty sure it’ll all make a good book if she and Theo can just survive it.
ROSIE AND THEO is 74,000 words. It is a contemporary fantasy novel about reclaiming agency, overcoming fear, and becoming the protagonist of your own narrative.

Well, ok, but I don't get how this is any of that. What fears does Rosie overcome? Reclaiming agency? I'm pretty sure you don't mean literary agency, cause that would be weird. Become the protagonist of your own narrative sounds like a self-help book, not a novel.

This is my debut novel. When I’m not writing, I’m raising five kids to be pretty cool humans, along with my pretty cool, human husband. Sometimes, I’ll go on long and very excited rants about Jewish pirates. It’s a thing.

This is the best part of the query. It's funny. It makes sense. And it makes me want to know more about you.And where's the book about Jewish pirates? Oy matey!

Thank you for your time and consideration.

You don't have any plot on the page here, and I'm not seeing what you tell me the book is about. Start over.

As for your questions:
Question Re: contact info. Should a tumblr be included? I have over 2k followers, but it's mostly fandom content. And what about fanfiction? I've been writing for 17 years and I have stories that have close to 50k hits online, and several hundred likes and comments. But I also know that a lot of people see fanfiction as taboo. Should I reference it, or am I better off not mentioning it at all?

Include your Tumblr account if you want an agent to look at it. Any social media platform is ok, particularly if it shows you've got an engaged audience.  Readers are readers and I'm always glad to hear that a debut novelist already has some. 

Fanfiction is taboo? I guess we should all forget that complete flop of a novel Fifty Shades of Grey?
I can't sell fanfiction using a world someone else created but I can certainly let READERS of that fiction know you have another book being published. There's a very clear distinction here. Let me know if you need elaboration.

One last question - when submission guidelines ask for pages, should they always be double spaced, even if the submission guidelines don't say either way?

Not in an electronic query. Pages are single spaced BUT you allow white space by inserting a line every 3-5 lines so you're not sending a Big Block O'Text.

Sunday, June 24, 2018



1. I was raised in Ireland but born in the Netherlands; technically English is my second language, should I mention this in the query or would I be better off keeping my background a secret?

2. I’ve lost count as to how many agents I’ve queried; my novel was requested twice. I’ve had it assessed by official assessment agencies twice as well, both were very positive but had different views to what I should adjust. Could it than be the query that is posing the problem?

3. Is this query too short?

4. Should I mention the courses I did?

Dear Query Shark,

Florian relives one day over and over again, 11th February 1803, the last day of his life.
Leda discovers 174 years later who murdered him.

Your sentence structure is robbing that second line of any zing.
Consider: 174 years later, Leda discovers who murdered him.
See the difference?

But the problem of course is that reliving one day over and over again has been done so often that it's not only NOT fresh and new, it's tired and cranky.

This opening does not catch my interest. That's not fatal in a query, but it's not good either.

Although Florian and Leda live in their own time, each simultaneously embarks on a quest for truth, not knowing what the other discovers will affect them both in ways they never dreamed.

I don't understand what that means. Specifics really help in a query. And as far as I can tell there's no plot and nothing at stake. I really need to know about those in the query.

The Ghost Swan is a literary novel of 96,000 words set in Ireland in 1977 and 1803, and told from two perspectives.

And here's what's really amiss about this query. You're calling it a literary novel, but this query is the antithesis of literary. There are no lyrical turns of phrase, no deftly wrought metaphors, no words tangoing the reader across the dance floor of the novel, beguiling them to read on.

In other words: your query shows me what kind of writing to expect in the novel, and after reading this I do not expect literary fiction.

Plain is good. Plain is very good. But plain as in the beauty of an Amish quilt or the negative space of a spider web on a dewy morning.

I am an artist, and divide my time between writing and painting large watercolors. I’ve completed the writing a Novel, course at (School) in London, and (named) course in Scotland, and the (another name) Short Story Course. I published a short memoir in (another) Magazine in Dublin, and also made the artwork for the cover of (another) Literary Magazine, which was published last January.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


To answer your questions:
1. I was raised in Ireland but born in the Netherlands; technically English is my second language, should I mention this in the query or would I be better off keeping my background a secret?

There's a difference between keeping it a secret and not announcing it in a query. If you were raised in Ireland my guess is your English is pretty darn good. I didn't see anything in the query that made me wonder if it was your second language.

2. I’ve lost count as to how many agents I’ve queried; my novel was requested twice. I’ve had it assessed by official assessment agencies twice as well, both were very positive but had different views to what I should adjust. Could it than be the query that is posing the problem?

This query doesn't work at all. It starts with something that doesn't sound engaging, and there's no hint of plot, or what's at stake for either main character.

3. Is this query too short?
It doesn't have any mention of plot or stakes, so yes. That said, don't just add that. Think about how to entice your reader.

4. Should I mention the courses I did?
 No. The only thing that matters is the book.

Start over. Get some plot on the page here in the query.
SHOW me that you're writing literary fiction. 
If you're not, it's ok, but call it something else (like commercial fiction.)

Sunday, June 17, 2018


I've queried fifty-six agents. Five requested my full manuscript. They all passed. I now have these questions: Regarding my MC's name, I know your mind turns to CODE NAME VERITY. This isn't what I want. But, I want to use the name and there's an etymological reason. Is this foolish? Should I mention that the novel is told in two points of view? Would it be relevant to mention my writer's group in my bio? And should I include my published novel even though it didn't achieve robust sales?

Dear Query Shark,

Sixteen-year-old Verity Callahan has the ability to know the true answer to every question she's asked. When she was fourteen, she learned minutes before it happened that her father would die in a car crash — and yet, she failed to save him.

She's tried to bury her ability, but now it's manifesting in new ways. She's burdened with more information than ever before. What's worse, she's compelled to blurt it all out. She never asked for this. She wants to be normal.

Her younger brother Lucas Callahan is an empath whose power is growing. He will manipulate anyone's emotions to get what he wants: access to the best Ivy League institutions and a life of power and prestige. And once he understands what Verity can do, he imagines all they could do together.

But Verity has found happiness with her new boyfriend, Will McConnall. Lucas wants Verity and her abilities under his control. Realizing he'll never get that with Will in her life, Lucas devises a drastic plan to eliminate him.

By answering one fateful question after another, Verity learns of Lucas's scheme. She must hone the very abilities she detests to thwart Lucas's plot, or lose Will forever and become Lucas's puppet.

TRUTH BE TOLD, a young adult contemporary fantasy novel, is 101,000 words.

My first novel, (title), was published by (press name) in 2009. I wrote the novel while earning a master's degree in creative writing at (named) College. I completed the Creative Writing Summer Programme at the University of (other name).

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Regarding your questions:

I've queried fifty-six agents. Five requested my full manuscript. They all passed. I now have these questions: Regarding my MC's name, I know your mind turns to CODE NAME VERITY. This isn't what I want. But, I want to use the name and there's an etymological reason. Is this foolish?

No. Verity is a fine, old-fashioned name.

Should I mention that the novel is told in two points of view?

It doesn't matter.

Would it be relevant to mention my writer's group in my bio?

No. Your writers group is absolutely irrelevant.
And should I include my published novel even though it didn't achieve robust sales?

And here's the answer to the question you didn't ask: what's wrong with my query.

Nothing. You're getting requests. The agents are passing after they've read the ms. That means you have a problem in the manuscript, not the query.

There are a couple of ways to work on that. All of them are going to require some financial investment. You can engage an outside editor to look at your novel and identify areas that need to be revised. You can enroll in a class about novel writing. Grub Street in Boston offers these. You can bid on (and win!) an auction item wherein an agent offers a manuscript critique.

When you're considering who to work with look for actual, and recent experience in trade publishing on the acquisitions side of things.  You need help from people actually in the publishing trenches, because what agents want is a book they can sell.
Your query has done her job. Time for the manuscript to step up.

Sunday, June 10, 2018


Greetings (Agent’s name)

When someone uses Greetings as the salutation, it always reminds me of the now cliche "Greetings, earthlings. Take me to your leader." Or worse, a letter from my draft board letting me know Uncle Sam has need of my services.

 I'm not sure why you don't want to use Dear; it's standard business form. Hello works too.

This sounds nit-picky. It IS nitpicky, but you want to set the right tone at the start; Greetings doesn't do that.

Title: Subtitle is a mystery/thriller novel that appears to correspond to the types of manuscript you prefer to represent.

No. Never ever put this in a query. Either tell me what SPECIFIC book your book is like, or leave it out. This is so general as to be meaningless.

Also, novels generally don't have subtitles.

And you don't need novel to modify mystery/thriller. Those are, by default, novels.

Again, I can hear you saying "don't be so damn nit picky" but if you've got excess words here, you're going to have them in your novel. Your query tells me what kind of writer you are, in addition to telling me what your book is about.

This is the kind of writing that leads to "french fried potatoes" instead of just french fries, or better yet, fries; and, "she looked down at her toes". Generally one is not looking UP at one's toes. If you are, then you'd include it. If you're just toe-gazing, you don't need down. Your reader will fill in the expected words.

The main plot of the book revolves around the struggle by several groups and individuals for control of the theology and especially the vast fortune of an astrology cult which has become a money laundering vehicle for powerful criminal cartels and organized crime.

Again,  is so general it's meaningless. Start with something interesting. Like what happens to one of the main characters that is important.

As in works by Russian authors such as Tolstoy this book has an ensemble protagonist. Which is to say there is no single main character. Instead, the plot is moved forward by several individuals or groups who, in some cases are not even aware of each other. The most important members of the ensemble are Izaak Houser a professional conman and the cult’s Head Astrologer. Sophia Chin-Robinson, an alcoholic housewife and cult member who lives on Guam. Xi, Shinwai a 93-year-old Hong Kong real estate tycoon who is also the cult’s wealthiest convert. Zack Xi, Shinwai’s sociopathic illegitimate son who is the CEO of one of his father’s subsidiaries which is used in the money laundering operation. Jacque Eider, the ethically challenged managing director of Zurich International Banc-Corp. Wilson Chau, a venal and corrupt law enforcement officer in Hong Kong. Gerald Morris a bitter, amoral, ex-mob lawyer. Thomas Saint-John, the leader of an Interpol team based in Geneva who is investigating money laundering and William Ngan an ICAC officer (The Hong Kong equivalent of the FBI) who is investigating what appears to be an unrelated crime. I believe this makes for a convoluted but ultimately engrossing storyline.

Never ever describe your novel as convoluted. It means difficult to follow. This is not what you want me thinking NOW. Complex, layered, multi-faceted, sure. Convoluted

There are 198 words in that paragraph and it doesn't tell me anything about the story.

You've got textbook character soup.

Here are the characters you mention by name:

(1) Izaak Houser a professional conman and the cult’s Head Astrologer

(2) Sophia Chin-Robinson, an alcoholic housewife and cult member who lives on Guam.

(3) Xi, Shinwai a 93-year-old Hong Kong real estate tycoon who is also the cult’s wealthiest convert

(4)Zack Xi, Shinwai’s sociopathic illegitimate son who is the CEO of one of his father’s subsidiaries which is used in the money laundering operation

(5) Jacque Eider, the ethically challenged managing director of Zurich International Banc-Corp

(6) Wilson Chau, a venal and corrupt law enforcement officer in Hong Kong.

(7) Thomas Saint-John, the leader of an Interpol team based in Geneva who is investigating money laundering

(8)William Ngan an ICAC officer (The Hong Kong equivalent of the FBI) who is investigating what appears to be an unrelated crime

Eight people.And not a one of them sounds interesting because you haven't given us a reason to care about any of them. We care about people when we see what choices they face.

I'd stop reading here if this was an incoming query.

I can get past all the format screwups and weird salutations, but at this point, you haven't done the one thing your query MUST DO: entice me to read more.

The manuscript is completed sans some editing. It is actually a prequel to another work which is also completed in what I plan as a series.

If I hadn't stopped reading when served character soup in the preceding paragraph, I'd stop here. Never query a novel that isn't ready to go on the day you send your query. Some of us surprise y'all by asking for things within minutes of receiving the query.

And just so you know, that last 10% of the editing? It takes forever if you do it right.

I hope that the work reminds my readers of books by authors such as Nury Vittachi because I am dealing not just with the crimes but with the subtle ways that people from different cultures and generations misunderstand each other. I also hope that readers of an author like Kurt Vonnegut would appreciate this book because it portrays imperfect people thrown into an absurd world and coping with the sometimes random consequence of both good and bad life choices. Lastly, I believe that readers who enjoy works by authors like Dan Brown would possibly enjoy my novel as it deals with alternative religious ideas particularly what most astrologers would consider a heterodox system.

Kurt Vonnegut and Dan Brown both huh?
Kurt Vonnegut writes literary work, Dan Brown doesn't even come close. When you select books to compare yours too, you need to be aware of style and tone, not just subject matter. 

I like the first sentence of this paragraph a lot. I think really terrific novels come from cultural and generational misunderstanding. Done well, this kind of novel can pack a very subtle but very powerful wallop.

The problem here is that you're telling me, not showing me. And you're telling me too much. I have no idea of the story here.  Even Tolstoy's ensemble casts novels had something that unified them.

War and Peace has 580 characters (no, I didn't count, I looked it up on Wikipedia) but it can be described without identifying more than a few:

The story moves from family life to the headquarters of Napoleon, from the court of Alexander I of Russia to the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino. Tolstoy's original idea for the novel was to investigate the causes of the Decembrist revolt, to which it refers only in the last chapters, from which can be deduced that Andrei Bolkonsky's son will become one of the Decembrists. The novel explores Tolstoy's theory of history, and in particular the insignificance of individuals such as Napoleon and Alexander.

I underlined insignificance here because if this arrived in a query, that would be the word that would catch my attention. Normally we think of Napolean and the Czars as significant. Here's a book that challenges that. I'm in!  (and that's exactly what you want a query to do)

This is an unusual mystery of just over 80,000 words. It is set primarily in the cities of Hong Kong and Zurich as well as on the island of Guam.

Well, I don't see anything unusual here about the story at all because there is no story.

Thank you for your time. I truly appreciate your diligence in reading this query and reviewing the sample chapters that I have submitted.

I know you're trying to be polite here but it comes off as smarmy. You don't have to thank the meter reader for looking at the gas meter. Reading and evaluating queries is my job.

You can reach me via my author email:

Leave this out. If you're querying by email, I have your email address already. If you want to include it, put it under your name

I look forward to your response.
You probably don't, but you're trying to be polite.

End a query with Thank you for your time and consideration. That's all you need.

What you've failed to do here is figure out how to query for an ensemble cast. The answer is not to list the characters and hope for the best.

There are some terrific ensemble cast books.

What you do is talk about what UNIFIES the characters. What do they have in common? Are they working at, coming to or leaving an AIRPORT (by Arthur Hailey). Are they living in the SOUTH PACIFIC (James Michener). Are they living/working/living/dying in Charm City (The Wire created by David Simon and Robert Colesberry.

There's simply no way all eight people can be the main character. They can be important to the plot, sure, but which character starts the plot moving forward? In Noble House by James Clavell it's not the prologue, it's the arrival of the Americans.

In Shogun, it's not the shipwreck, it's the decision to save the English sailor.

At some point in your novel, hopefully at the start, something changes. That's where your plot is.

Start over. Tell me about a story I'll want to read.

Sunday, June 3, 2018


Question: Should I hire a manuscript editor to correct my “broken” English or if my plot is interesting enough an agent will ask for ms anyway?

Dear Query Shark,
My background is diverse. English is my second language and my writing has a "Russian" voice. I migrated to the states from Russia with a dream to be a writer. Twenty years later, after life’s whirlpool, I decided to go back to my true calling. During my visit to Germany, the idea of this romance novel was born.

Never start a query with this kind of information.  Start with the book.

Inspired by true events and real people, ROSWELL PROVISIONS is a new adult contemporary romance, about 140,000 words. It offers glimpses into the childhood of a Russian immigrant, savors the flavor of romantic places, introduces peculiar characters, and is a simply a charming love story.
ROSWELL PROVISIONS is the story of a Russian divorcee who immigrated to the states at a young age.
Ekaterina Caldwell a broken-hearted writer working on her first novel. On a trip to New York, she meets a charming Scotsman, Aaron. After spending two days with him, they part without exchanging personal contact information.

And when I say start with the book, I mean start with the character and what changes, or is about to change in their life; what they want and why they can't have it. In other words, where your story starts.

And 140,000 words is a big ass book. It's not a deal breaker but it's a problem. Those first pages of your manuscript that you include with a query MUST be taut. When I see a big ass book, and flabby first pages, I pass. 

A few months later, Aaron visits Atlanta and their paths cross again. The relationship grows deeper as they spend several romantic days together. Aside from sharing love for history and travel, they both share the pain of broken marriages. While Kate is open about her family and past heartache, Aaron keeps a veil of mystery about his family and previous marriage. This secrecy does not stop Kate from falling in love with him. The mystery gets resolved when Kate visits Aaron in Germany at a grand castle during her research for a historical novel.

There's no plot here.
You refer to a mystery, but I don't have any sense there is a mystery. That Aaron isn't forthcoming about his family or previous marriage isn't a mystery, it's How Men Are.

Right now, the problem isn't your "broken English" (which I didn't see, this reads fine to me) it's the utter lack of plot.

There are several QS entries that list guidelines for getting plot on the page. Maybe it's time for a refresher.

An effective query is most often plot focused:
a Who is the main character?
b What does she want?
c What is keeping her from getting what she wants?
d What must she sacrifice to get what she wants?/what's at stake


a Jack Reacher
b wants to see the grave of a old, almost forgotten blues musician
c when he is suddenly, inexplicably arrested for a murder he could not have committed

d When the guy behind the false arrest is also killed, Reacher can stay in town, at great peril to himself, to solve the case or he can leave shake the dust of this crazy town off his sneakers and get on with his wandering.

Your query will ALWAYS simplify the plot. (This example leaves out all references to Reacher's brother for example)

How to get stakes on the page:

e The main character must choose Path A or Path B
f If she chooses Path A, the dire consequences/outcome/peril she faces are:
g If she chooses Path B, the even more dire consequences/outcome/peril she faces are
h what will she have to give up to achieve her goal?


e When her younger sister is called to be their district's entry in the Hunger Games Katniss Everdeen must decide whether or not to go in her place.

f If she goes, her family will suffer because Katniss' hunting skills are what keeps them from starving now;

g If she decides not to go, her sister will surely die in the Games.

Hint: no backstory. Your reader will jump right in to the story with you

This will not be the exact wording for your query. It will help you distill your plot to the essentials. You need the essentials of Act One, not a rundown of the entire plot.

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

To answer your question: if you're not confident of your command of English (and honestly, English is such a bitch, none of us should be all that confident) hiring an editor is a good idea. While I did not see any overt red flags here, taking an extra step is a good idea.

You can also mention at the close of your query that you're writing in English but your native language is whatever it is. That way an agent knows that if you have some oddities it's probably just English having her way with you, not that you're careless.

There are several stellar writers working in English as a second language. My favorite example is Aleksandar Hemon. His writing is often very interesting precisely because he's working in his non-native tongue. I highly recommend his books.

Sunday, May 27, 2018


Question: I’ve had a devil of a time coming up with good, recent comps. One possibility is Christina Dalcher’s VOX, but that’s not yet published and I’ve only read a short excerpt. Another is Ben Winters’s UNDERGROUND AIRLINES, but that’s an dystopian thriller about race, not a dystopian mystery about religion. Is it better to leave out comps entirely?

Dear Query Shark:

Father Rolf Sorenson is a procurator—responsible for spiritual law and order in the Christian Republic. He’s a Priest of the Gun. He barely remembers America before the Awakening, before he began hearing the Voices. They’re his secret curse, those Voices. They hound him with mindless phrases and bits of banned pop songs.

On a cold Chicago night, Rolf takes a call—yet another church suicide, seems like, a woman in a baptismal fount. font. He gives her last rites for good measure. Then the dead woman talks to him using lines from Shakespeare. And tells him she was murdered.

Rolf knows he should close the case as a suicide. If he pursues the woman’s killer, he’ll attract unwanted attention from the clerics in DC and risk exposing his own secret. But Rolf can’t let go: the case could reveal at last what the Voices are and the role they played in transforming America into a theocracy.

PRIEST OF THE GUN is a procedural with supernatural elements, set in a dark future where TRUE DETECTIVE meets THE HANDMAID’S TALE. It’s complete at 99,000 words.

I taught legal writing at (school). I’m now a tenured professor at (a different) Law School and a scholar of National Security Law, which plays a minor role in the novel. I’ve published a couple of pieces in THE NEW REPUBLIC and numerous articles in law journals.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

I'd read this. This is a good solid query. It give us enough world building to know where we are, without overloading details to bog down the pace of the query.

It's also something I haven't seen before, and that's always a good thing.

An of course, the writing is very good.

I'm not sure you need comps here.  I have a good sense of this book without them. 

BUT, if you want to use comps, don't use a book that isn't published. And particularly not one you haven't read in its entirety.

Comps are one way to figure out where a book goes in the bookstore; is it SF or literary for example, would be a question I'd ask here. 

Comps are one way for readers to hear about your book: if you liked that book, you'll like this one.

You want to get as close as you can in category and style.  This book is similar to The Electric Church in setting but I have a feeling it's a lot less violent. You'd have to read TEC to know if it's a good comp AND want to see your book shelved in SF, cause that's what TEC is.

Some agents insist on comps so it's a good idea to include them.

Sunday, May 20, 2018


Question: The query focuses largely on an act 1 subplot involving the MC's female best friend and ignores the main romance interest, whose plot doesn't rev up until late in act 2 (not good for a query). My one page synopsis (not included) is the exact opposite. It ignores the best friend entirely so it can focus on the main romance interest, whose plot structure largely parallels the main plot with the villains. I know you might not be able to answer without the synopsis, but will agents have a problem with this? I'm afraid it will feel too disconnected or misleading.

Dear Query Shark:

Seventh grader Scott Winters doesn't know he has super powers. He just knows he has problems. A bear in his school, a classmate with amnesia, a random rat infestation. Crazy things tend to happen around Scott, and he always gets the blame. So when seven of his classmates mysteriously fall into a lion habitat, Scott knows he's in trouble again. What he doesn't know is that someone just tried to kill him.

This lead paragraph is 72 words, or about 25% of your query. The ONLY information you need here is the first and last sentence.

The paragraph is well-written, and it's pretty funny, BUT it makes me think the book is about Scott getting his friends out of trouble. You don't want me to think the book is one thing when it's really something else.

So revising:

Seventh grader Scott Winters doesn't know he has super powers. He just knows he has problems. A bear in his school, a classmate with amnesia, a random rat infestation. Crazy things tend to happen around Scott, and he always gets the blame. So when seven of his classmates mysteriously fall into a lion habitat, Scott knows he's in trouble again. What he doesn't does know is that someone just tried to kill him.

Meanwhile, Scott's best friend is also in danger. Schv√§rtzmurgel Hoffman is three parts tomboy, two parts snark. Just don't try using her first name — she'll punch you. Schizophrenia and a terrible fashion sense earn her plenty of ridicule at school, but Hoffman's real trouble lies at home. Scott finds her with a black eye the next day. Her mother's hitting her again.

Wait. Schizophrenia? Where did that come from? And equating a debilitating mental illness with terrible fashion sense is both tone deaf and weird.

In addition, this paragraph does not relate in any way to the first paragraph. You left me wondering who's trying to kill Scott in paragraph one. Paragraph two should be something about that, not this odd curveball.

Scott already tried contacting the authorities about Hoffman's situation, but they don't believe him. Somehow Hoffman's mother always convinces the other adults that nothing's wrong. Scott settles for inviting Hoffman over as often as possible, but even this plan is jeopardized when another attempt is made on Scott's life. This time the villain reveals himself — a tall man with telekinetic abilities.

Ok so now we have the villain. You'll have to cut out all the stuff about Miss Hoffman (notice you've told us what NOT to call her, but not what her preferred name is) cause it doesn't relate AT ALL to what you've said is the main plot: someone trying to kill Scott.

Running for their lives, Scott and Hoffman are thrust into the hidden world of superpowers. Scott soon discovers his own unique power, immunity to other superpowers and the ability to suppress them temporarily. He also meets three empowered FBI agents. They take Scott and Hoffman into protective custody, which shines a spotlight on Hoffman's home life.

At this point I'm too confused to read on. What is "the hidden world of superpowers?" Where did the FBI come from? 

Scott doesn't have high hopes, but the superpowered branch of the FBI is better equipped than the local authorities. They identify Hoffman's mom as a psychic, able to manipulate the thoughts of others. It's such a dangerous power that the FBI asks Scott for help. His ability to suppress superpowers is ideal for shutting down psychics, but the telekinetic man is still at large. Scott now faces a difficult choice. Keep hiding for his own safety, or risk another attack to protect his friend.

If Hoffman's mom is a key part of the plot, you can still leave out all the abuse stuff in your query. A query needs to be sleek, not stuffed.

Written by a physicist who picked up creative writing as a way to stay sane in graduate school, HOW TO SAVE THE GIRL is a fast-paced tale full of quirky characters and superheroic hijinks. The work is 68,500 words, with a narrative style inspired by the Percy Jackson novels and Stuart Gibbs' "Spy School" series. While there is scattered humor throughout, the story does not make light of child abuse.

Doesn't make light of child abuse? Why on earth would I even think you'd do that? Don't defend yourself against accusations that haven't been made.

I don't care why you want to be a writer.

I hope there is more than scattered humor cause this is a middle grade book about superpowers. Funny is the ONLY way its going to work.

Right now this query is over stuffed. Focus on the MAIN plot.

I'm totally put off by the idea there's a romance in a middle grade novel but that's probably cause I'm thinking of romance novels. Middle grade novels are read by 4th-6th graders. I'm absolutely sure that a strong romantic element is out of place here. Boys and girls being friends is about the max on this kind of thing.

That the plot doesn't rev up until "late in Act 2" is a HUGE problem, in that when I request a full manuscript, the plot better be revved up and running by the end of Act 1 and preferably a lot sooner.

If not, I stop reading.

Middle grade readers aren't going to sit around and wait for the good stuff either.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

To answer your question: a query that doesn't match the synopsis IS confusing. The fact that they don't means you have a problem WITH THE BOOK. 

This means, before you revise the query, make sure the plot of your book is front and center in the very first pages.  

Then revise your query.

I also suspect you would benefit from reading more middle grade books. Your librarian can help you with that. She's superpowered that way.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

#309-Revised once

 Revision #1
Dear Query Shark,

It seems like a dream gig when Chloe gets the job offer – live in Montreal’s Underground City for a full year and blog about the experience. The flip side of the city has all the creature comforts. The year will fly by.

As if.
That's the wrong phrase here because "as if" is essentially "it'll be a cold day in hell before the QueryShark is nice to writers." If you substitute "it'll be a cold day in hell before the year will fly by" you see it doesn't work.

When I read your query I don't assess why something doesn't work, I just think "that doesn't sound right."  It's not a deal breaker this early in the query, but I'm now on alert for other things that seem off.

Not a week into her assignment, Chloe is roughed up by Scout, a young homeless woman living in the Underground City. When Chloe later stumbles across her attacker and corners her, a flicker of sympathy rises up in her for this troubled runaway struggling to survive underground, fleeing a threat she refuses to disclose.

Chloe’s no bleeding heart. She’s always looked out for number one. But this chance run-in unhinges her, and acting against all her instincts she sets herself up as Scout’s protector.

And here's the next instance. "Unhinges her" is wrong, unless you mean this chance run-in send her into a mental health breakdown. That doesn't seem logical at all. It seems like a real over reaction.

No good deed goes unpunished. Soon a whole cast of vulnerable characters crawls out of the underground woodwork hoping that Chloe will put them under her wing too. She gives in to serving as their lifeline, and plunges into her new role as guardian angel of the underground’s unprotected.

And here's the third: "put them under her wing" is wrong. "Take them under her wing" is the phrase.

At this point, we've got three clunky word choices, and no antagonist. That means I'm skimming the rest of the query.

Unaccustomed as she is to do-gooding, Chloe seeks her grandmother’s help, and together they set up a safe-house to care for her new coterie of dependents. But when Scout runs off from her bespoke shelter, putting the lives of all the others in danger, Chloe has to decide how far she is willing to go to prevent Scout from sabotaging the subterranean refuge she has turned herself inside-out to create.

bespoke shelter? Bespoke means tailored, or custom made,  for an individual. This safe house was set up for the coterie. Again, poorly chosen word.

Why does Scout running off put anyone in danger? 

TUCKED AWAY, my third novel, weighs in at 90,000 words and is complete.  My previous novels, XXX and YYY, were accepted after direct submission to two Canadian indie publishers, but I am hoping with this go-round to find representation.  I have also had short stories appear in numerous literary magazines, among them Agni, Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Fire.

The first chapter of TUCKED AWAY is included below. Thank you for your time and consideration.

 I'm not sure what went wrong with the word choices here. It wasn't in the first version of the query.
You still don't have an antagonist, which means you have a problem with the book most likely, not just the query.

Go back to your novel and answer these questions:

1. What does Chloe want?
2. Who or what is keeping her from getting it?
3. What will she have to give up or lose to get what she wants?
4. What bad thing will happen if she doesn't get what she wants?
5. What worse thing will happen if she does?

This is predicated on Chloe being the protagonist.  You should be able to answer these questions for the antagonist too, even if it's not in the query.

Bottom line: I have no sense of what the story is here. Chloe helps homeless people ...and then?


Am I taking a risk that an agent will think the Underground City is some futuristic, contrived location when in fact it’s an actual part of the Montreal downtown landscape where people shop and live and work? Does it matter?
I won a short story award in 2010. Is this too ancient to include?

Dear Query Shark,

It seems like a dream gig when Chloe gets the job offer – live in Montreal’s Underground City for a full year and blog about the experience. The flip side of the city has all the creature comforts. The year will fly by.

This is a good opening.

But there’s a catch.

To collect her whopping bonus for sticking it out till day 365, the struggling grad student must agree never to set so much as a toe outside the territory of the Underground City, submitting to an ankle-monitor to keep her on the straight and narrow. The would-be blogger doesn’t have much choice, even if the conditions are hard-core. Out of work, impaled by debt, and sole support of a grandmother whose bank account is likewise on life-support, Chloe signs on the dotted line.

I have a real antipathy about describing one character in several ways in short order. You have "struggling grad student" "wold be blogger" and then you have all those things again with "out of work, impaled by debt" with the bonus of sole support of grandma. 

Your reader doesn't need that much description, and it gets in the way of what we do need to know: the plot. Which we don't so far. In other words: what's at a stake.

And that’s when her life goes into free fall.

With Chloe not at home to nix the idea, her grandmother invites her new acquaintances, the Diallos, to hole up in her basement after the family’s refugee application is returned to them stamped get lost. Chloe’s fury at discovering her grandmother has converted the basement into a safe-house for a family of five morphs into relief when she stumbles across a desperate illegal of her own who needs protecting.

And this is where the query goes to Helvetica in a handbasket. You started with a pretty interesting idea: Chloe has to live in the Underground City for a year, no sneaking out for a quick trip to Vegas.

Now we've got immigrants, and grandma going nuts, and another immigrant that Chloe knows. For starters that's too many people in a query. And we still don't have any sense of the plot.

Scout, a runaway hiding out in the Underground City, is fleeing a threat she refuses to disclose. When she comes out the loser in an underground turf fight, Chloe dispatches the battered girl to her grandmother’s where Dr. Diallo can care for her in secret.

And here's where I'd stop reading. Still no plot. A new character out of the blue, and zero sense of what's at stake for Chloe. 

The reason I'd stop reading is you're all over the place here. There's no focus, no sense of moving the narrative forward. If I don't see that here in the query, I won't see it in the book.

As the ugly details of Scout’s past emerge, putting at risk the entire crew harboured in her grandmother’s makeshift refuge, Chloe has to decide if she’s prepared to lay her cushy future on the line to rescue a group of virtual strangers from discovery and ruin.

what? WHAT? This book is about the people in Grandma's basement, not Chloe's year underground?
You START with that: Chloe is away on a year long gig, not allowed to come home so her Grandma goes nuts and invites people to live in her house.

What's at stake for Chloe here? If she leaves Underground City she's not any worse off is she? She doesn't have to sacrifice anything or lose anything no matter what she chooses or decides. That's death in a book because it means there's no tension.

TUCKED AWAY, my third novel, weighs in at 90,000 words and is complete. My previous novels, XXX and YYY, were accepted after direct submission to two Canadian indie publishers, but I am hoping with this go-round to find representation. I have also had short stories appear in numerous literary magazines, among them Agni, Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Fire.

The first chapter of TUCKED AWAY is included below. Thank you for your time and consideration.

This query doesn't work. To fix it first, figure out what the plot is, particularly what's at stake for Chloe and Grandma (if they are the main characters.) Who's the antagonist? What does s/he want? Why/how is Chloe getting in the way of that goal?

As for your two questions: I think it's clear that Underground City is real. It's certainly clear this is a contemporary novel, not and SFF novel.

A short story award in 2010 is fine but don't list that first. List your novels first.

Sunday, May 6, 2018


QUESTION: This is a mash-up of genres, a comedic business-world satire and romance. And, while it's about a sex portal, there are only a couple of sweet, not-so-explicit sex scenes. Is this hopeless and, if not, am I selling it right?

Dear Query Shark:

Bopper Dinneman, code god, thinks he's just landed his dream gig: chief technology officer for a company building a streaming virtual reality website devoted to sex.

It seems like the perfect job for a horny 28-year-old technology whiz kid -- glamour, plenty of venture capital, and a bevy of “content providers” recruited from San Francisco's talent pool of enthusiastic and creative sex workers. Add to this a boss who's a dead ringer for Lara Croft, and you've made Bopper a very happy man.

You've essentially repeated what you told us in the first paragraph, albeit with more detail. In other words you haven't moved us forward.

As Bopper and his crew of coders get busy building the next generation of X-rated video chat, he’s getting to know women in a whole new way. There's only one glitch—it turns out that the company is run by the Mafia. Like everyone else, The Family wants to disrupt their business model.

Huh? My experience with the mob is limited to repeated viewings of The Godfather, and a whole lot of crime novels, but my sense is the Mob doesn't want to disrupt anything. They want you to make tons of money, and give them a chunk of it.

When you write something like this in a query, something that makes my eyebrows go all quizzical, you need to tell me WHY the mob wants to disrupt their business model.

Bopper and his crew will have to use persuasion, cunning and some martial arts training to wrest control away from the old-guard Mafia dons, so they can take a shot at turning their ideal of a tech-loving, sex-positive business into reality.

or what?
The stakes here seem really weird: they want to run their business in a sex-positive way? What happens if they can't? 

Narrated from deep in Bopper's id, Streaming is a 50,000-word satire of the startup world and a romcom. It's like if Ready Player One took place today and was written by a business journalist instead of a video gamer. It’s sexy but not explicit; at its heart, it’s about our need for connection in a disconnected world.

I have no idea what "narrated from deep in Bopper's id" means. I had to look up id. I know it's one of the parts of the mind, but past that, nothing. (id: the part of the mind in which innate instinctive impulses and primary processes are manifest.)

Once I looked it up, I still had no idea what you meant. That's not a good thing in a query.

And I get NO sense of what "our need for connection in a disconnected world" has to do with the mafia wanting to disrupt a sex portal.

And by portal, I think you mean something other than a window into another world (as in The Breach by Patrick Lee.)  When words have multiple meanings and your reader might not know all of them, some context or a different word is useful.

As to your question: this isn't a mash up of genres. It's satire. A category (like satire) can have a story line about a romance without being a romance novel or worse, a mashup of genres.  A mashup of genres is something like Jane Slayre

I'm not sure there's enough plot on the page here to entice me, even withstanding these other problems. The idea that a business might have to change seems pretty low-stakes to me.

Sunday, April 29, 2018


After a lot of back and forth with critique partners, I ended up writing a non-standard query letter. It got better feedback by far from betas/CPs than any other letter I've tried.

However, I won a free query critique on social media, and the query expert who I subbed it to was adamant that it was unacceptable.

I trust both groups but they can't both be right?


Dear Query Shark,

Remy is a waitress, scraping by in the waking world. Ro is her dream-self, fighting monsters in the dreamworld.

Remy has depression and a catalogue of failure. Ro has magic guns and kickass friends.

Remy is planning to commit suicide. Ro is pretty sold on staying alive.

If Remy dies, Ro is fucked.

Because this is how it works: dream-selves don't survive the death of their dreamers. If Ro wants to live, she must breach the divide between worlds (no problem) to save someone who doesn't want saving (little harder), while not breaking reality in the process (no promises).

ANCHOR (TO YOUR OTHER SELF) tells the story of two different women in two different worlds, who share one life between them. This standalone novel of speculative fiction (93,000 words) may appeal to fans of Michael Marshall Smith, or anyone with a bleak sense of humor.

[Bio here]

Thanks for your time and attention. I have included [whatever material you asked for].

Kind regards,

Delicious Chum Jr.

What exactly makes this non-standard? Did the so called expert have anything specific to offer?
And anyone who says this is unacceptable is an idiot. You can quote me.

This query is terrific.
It sets up stakes. It's crisp. The writing is clean.

The only thing I'd worry about here is that the stakes aren't high enough: the only thing bad that can happen is the protagonist might die. Usually heroic stakes involve the fate of another person as well. You die for a cause, for a person, for something larger than yourself.

But that's a problem with the novel, not the query.

Which brings me to self-described query letter experts. There aren't any. Not even the Shark. The closest you can get are agents who actually read and evaluate queries and we can disagree with each other about some pretty weird things. Other people, like editors, can be trusted, IF they actually did acquisitions in a previous career iteration. To be avoided are those folks who've never actually used queries to find work they sold, or bought.

An effective query is the one that gets your pages read, and hopefully generates a request for your manuscript. That's the ONLY measure of an effective query. "Bad" queries can work. "Good" queries can fail.

The purpose of QueryShark is to get a second set of eyes on your query; eyeballs that actually dive into incoming queries on a regular basis and can see some things you don't.

I like this query a lot. If I took on projects in this category, I'd read the pages.

Sunday, April 22, 2018


Question: I describe Woman in the Wind as a literary crime novel but am unsure. It’s certainly not a straight crime novel because while the story hinges on criminal acts, it's the story of a quest that involves a woman's awakening to her own potential for work and love. This probably isn’t the most sea-shaking question I could ask Query Shark, but do the themes and some non-traditional characters mean I’m calling it by the right term?

Dear QueryShark:

A jaded Iris Clark doesn’t expect much when she returns to her Texas hometown to help her mother, but deep down, she hopes for renewal. Trouble is, Stillwell’s not that kind of place. It’s the kind of place where a woman can disappear for no good reason and plenty of bad ones.

Iris runs head on into that hard reality when a white-girl DUI lands her in county jail, where she finds casual assaults and oppression to be the norm, and Lea, the unstable young African-American student who’s her cellmate, to be flat-out delusional. Once home, Iris discovers that when Lea was released, she was dumped out of the jail on the Sabinal Canyon Road at midnight—no ride, no phone—and seen no more.

At this point, my fingers are crossed that this query will not implode. I'm interested in what happens next.

Lea’s mother Roberta discovers that nobody except Iris will listen, and so the two of them join forces and start asking questions. They meet with indifference and hostility, but Iris’s twenty years in LA has erased her small-town caution. Using old money connections, she expands the search and manages to grab some media attention. When she is run off the road and nearly killed, it seems obvious that she is onto something.

Iris comes back strong, but Roberta fades, overcome by despair and a traumatic personal history. Iris cultivates an eclectic crew—the crackpot millionaire she knew as a child, her mother’s gay caregiver, a freelance detective who mentors her, and a fearless new friend. Tom√°s soon becomes more than a friend, which also makes him more of a target, but when he is arrested, beaten and jailed with gang members, he gains new intel that helps Iris untangle the stories of missing women. Despite warnings, Iris goes it alone and in a fight for her life, finds help from a surprising ally.

And this is all just too much. The abstract "traumatic personal history" isn't specific enough to be interesting. The eclectic crew isn't deftly drawn enough to be anything other than a string of adjectives.

There's nothing we need here in terms of plot.

I'll keep reading but the momentum is dropping.

Revelations of murder and corruption crack open the sealed world of Stillwell, but Iris and Tomas see hope in a future there and commit to a life together along the Sabinal River.

If this is the end of the novel, the first thing to remember is you don't talk about the entire novel in a query. That's what a synopsis is for.

You would have been better off to stop at the end of paragraph 3.

Woman in the Wind is a literary crime novel complete at 76,000 words. As director of Texas Jail Project, I hear the stories of women who survive the brutality of the criminal justice system and of the ones who don’t, including the model for Lea who died in a California canyon after being released from a local jail. I’m 140 pages into another novel about Iris, relocated to a Rio Grande border town where she joins a diverse band of locals battling a powerful coal-mining company. 

Don't spend time in this query talking about the next book.

And 76,000 words seems very very short if you're talking about a taut suspense novel. In other words, do you have enough story here?

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

None of the problems in this query would keep me from reading pages, but it could certainly be tightened up by focusing ONLY on the precipitating incident and then what's at stake for Iris. We really don't have any sense of that here.

You can tank that first pages opportunity if you open with someone waking up, driving, getting a phone call, or doing any of the other gazillion things writers like to do before getting to something interesting.

It's ok to write all that stuff, but when you're revising the big question to ask yourself: is something changing for my main character yet?  Don't make me read 20 pages to get to that point.

As for your question: any crime novel, whether literary or not, requires that the plot hinge on a crime of some sort, and the resolution of the plot be the resolution of the crime. In other words, Romeo and Juliet isn't a crime novel (ok, play) because the resolution of the plot isn't the resolution of the crime (which is Romeo killing Tybalt.)

 Whether this is a literary crime novel, I don't know. I'd have to read the novel.

What I do know is this is NOT a quest novel which generally require an actual journey of some sort from innocence to maturity.

This doesn't feel like women's fiction because there's not a strong enough sense of Iris growing as a person.

And it's certainly not a romance because the romance isn't the centerpiece of the book.

I hope it's literary crime or suspense, because that's what I'm looking for.

The problem with not knowing if it's a crime novel (or any other specific genre) is that if you tell me it's literary crime, and the book doesn't adhere to the requirements of the genre, I'll be frustrated and confused. That's not not not your goal!

Sunday, April 15, 2018


The pivotal scene in my manuscript is the rape of the main character. My last beta reader said she had nightmares for two days about the story and I should be upfront regarding the violent aspects of the plot. Should I be direct about this in the query letter? Does it matter to agents?

Dear Query Shark:

For college freshman Maggie Coinin, befriending shy Brian Chasseur didn’t seem significant, but now he’s following her around like a lost dog. She thinks he has a harmless crush. She couldn’t be more wrong.

This is a nice start. There's an immediate sense that something is about to happen.

Maggie isn’t aware that Brian lives in a medicated haze to quell his violent outbursts. Knowing his rage can’t get the better of him again, he’s hidden a gun and a single bullet in his dorm room.

I don't understand the purpose of this paragraph. You're repeating the sense of impending doom from the previous paragraph. That undercuts the power of the first paragraph. The second paragraph should move us forward, not repeat what we already know or elaborate on the elements of "more wrong." You can take this whole thing out and not lose any of the plot.

 You've also got both points of view: Maggie's in the first sentence and Brian's in the second sentence.  That's REALLY confusing.

After Maggie rejects Brian’s advances, he ditches his medication to let the real Brian come out. As far as he’s concerned, their fates are intertwined, and she must realize that they belong together. But when stalking her isn’t enough to satisfy his desire, Brian takes what he wants.

I'd stop reading right here, and pass as fast as I could.  Right now, this book seems to be about a violent man who stalks a woman, and frankly, I have zero interest in reading that. 

Maggie is a cipher right now, seen only as the object of Brian's attention. We don't know anything about her, what she wants, what's keeping her from getting it. We have no reason to care about her.

If there's one thing readers have stopped buying it's books where women are merely objects. 

Years in prison have given Brian time to think about Maggie’s sins. Not only has she stolen a part of his life, she murdered their child. Now that he’s free, he’s tracked Maggie to Chicago and is looking to settle the score.

Wait, what?? I thought they were in college?
And dear god, if "she murdered their child" means Maggie had an abortion after conceiving from a rape, I'm glad I stopped reading before this. 

Maggie is an object, and Brian is a violent rapist. Which character did you think your reader would be interested in? 

Sensing Brian’s return, Maggie has cloistered herself from the world. But when Jude O'Connell walks into her life, she rethinks her solitude. Their growing relationship helps Maggie rediscover her inner strength to confront her past. But as she lets down her guard for Jude, Brian closes in.

Maggie needs to buy a damn stun gun. 

Because we have no idea of what has happened to Maggie in these intervening years, we have no idea what she needs, or wants.  That means the reader fills in what they want her to do (ie the stun gun above), and when your reader starts rewriting your book at the query stage, it's a bad bad sign.

From what you write here Brian is the character driving the plot. He's forcing the changes in Maggie's life. Both a protagonist and an antagonist must have something a reader responds to in a positive way. Neither has to be likable, not at all, but both must be compelling. Right now Brian is not that. He's repellent. This is a problem of the novel, not the query.

My debut novel, THE SLEEP OF REASON, is a complete upmarket fiction manuscript at 88,000-words. The novel is told from Brian’s and Maggie’s points of view. The target audience is women ages twenty-five to forty-five, who enjoyed The Couple Next Door, The Weight of Lies, and Gone Girl.

Here's the description of The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena:
Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all—a loving relationship, a wonderful home, and their beautiful baby, Cora. But one night, when they are at a dinner party next door, a terrible crime is committed. Suspicion immediately lands on the parents. But the truth is a much more complicated story.

Inside the curtained house, an unsettling account of what actually happened unfolds. Detective Rasbach knows that the panicked couple is hiding something. Both Anne and Marco soon discover that the other is keeping secrets, secrets they've kept for years.

What follows is the nerve-racking unraveling of a family—a chilling tale of  deception, duplicity, and unfaithfulness that will keep you breathless until the final shocking twist.

We see Anne and Marco suddenly suspected of a crime. We instantly care about them because we think this suspicion is unfair.  

We know more about Anne and Marco in that first sentence than we do about Maggie in your entire query, and it sets up the reader to care about them. 

And there is NO hint of violence, or mental illness or stalking in this description.

Here's the description for The Weight of Lies by Emily Carpenter
Reformed party girl Meg Ashley leads a life of privilege, thanks to a bestselling horror novel her mother wrote decades ago. But Meg knows that the glow of their very public life hides a darker reality of lies, manipulation, and the heartbreak of her own solitary childhood. Desperate to break free of her mother, Meg accepts a proposal to write a scandalous, tell-all memoir.

Digging into the past—and her mother’s cult classic—draws Meg to Bonny Island, Georgia, and an unusual woman said to be the inspiration for the book. At first island life seems idyllic, but as Meg starts to ask tough questions, disturbing revelations come to light…including some about her mother.

Soon Meg’s search leads her to question the facts of a decades-old murder. She’s warned to leave it alone, but as the lies pile up, Meg knows she’s getting close to finding a murderer. When her own life is threatened, Meg realizes the darkness found in her mother’s book is nothing compared to the chilling truth that lurks off the page.
Again, we know a lot more about Meg in that first sentence than we do about your Maggie. And there doesn't seem to be some sort of violent rapist on the first page here. 

Gone Girl isn't a good comp for anyone any more. It was a runaway success which we all hope for, but is damn hard to replicate. And unless you've got some sort of twist ending here, the only similarity I see is the alternating point of view.

One thing you did well was choosing the first two comps-they're current (both pubbed in 2017.) Comps need to be as current as possible, and generally no more than two or three years old.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The problem here are your characters.
I don't care about Maggie other than in a very abstract way, which is death in a query. I'm repelled by Brian's action, and he seems to be in the grip of mental illness, thus not evil by choice.

An antagonist who does evil because he is mentally ill isn't interesting. He's not in control; he's not choosing to do bad things.

To answer your question: the rating system for movies that says "graphic content" or "some nudity" is intended to help parents screen movies for their children. Your book isn't intended for children. Thus you don't need a warning sign on it.

However.  Graphic rape scenes are a HUGE turn  off for me as a reader. Graphic violence of any kind, really.  It's one thing to know something bad happened, even something really bad. It's another thing to read every last detail as it's happening.

Remember too, graphic does not always equal frightening. The scariest movies are the ones where you don't know what's out there, not those with  some monster tearing someone limb from limb. Those blood-fests often become ludicrous, not scary.  The master of suspense (Hitchcock!) let you scare yourself. 

And frankly, if you just tell me there are graphic rape scenes in the query, I'm much MUCH more likely to pass. You're telling me about something I don't want to read about, and without any context, and absent the framework of a story where I care what happens to the characters.  It's as if you told me you're going to poke me with a sharp object.  My instant reaction is "no you are not, and get out of here" as I reach for my stun gun.  But, if you ask to poke me with a needle to inoculate me against the flu, I not only say yes, I give you $20 to do so.  Context.

I think your query has revealed some fundamental problems with your novel. However, if you just chose the wrong way to describe the characters here, revise and resend.

Sunday, April 8, 2018


Dear QueryShark,

This is not Hallie's bed.
She has never been to this house.
The diamond ring on her left hand does not belong to her.

The only explanation would be a dangerous one, except the woman smiling in the wedding photo looks exactly like her. And the man she just hit in the head with a shoe is claiming to be her husband. When her father, who has been dead ten years, and her mother, a mentally unstable shut-in, reappear in this life whole, happy, and alive, Hallie is forced to face this strange new reality.

She really is married to Quinton Burg.
She never moved to Chicago to be an artist.
She may be on the road to hysteria.

Doctors find nothing wrong, no physical reason for the replacement of memories that has ripped her from a newfound life and dumped her back in her small hometown. Her father's strange behavior toward the memory loss leads Hallie to suspect he has the answers no doctor can give. If she learns his secrets, this new life she has come to accept could disappear like a fading dream.

But if she trusts him, there may be no old life to return to.

THE DIVIDERS is an 80,000-word thriller. Thank you for your time and consideration

This isn't a thriller. My best guess, not having read the pages, is that it's suspense and, most likely domestic suspense. That's not only not a deal breaker it's a big bonus.  Thrillers are harder to sell than domestic suspense these days.

And this is why you put the category at the close of the query, not at the start. An agent looking for domestic suspense might not stop to think "oh hey, she might have the category wrong here." The agent sees thriller, thinks "oh crap not another thriller" and slides right by.


If this query isn't getting results it's cause the pages don't hold up.  The query is terrific. It's got voice. It's got rhythm. There are no wasted words, or drawn out explanations.

The VERY interesting omission is comps. That's an entirely valid choice and can work in an author's favor.  The first thing I thought of here was the riveting movie Get Out which still haunts me. (Go see it!)  Sometimes letting the agent realize things on their own is pretty smart. It's a risk, but a smart one.