Sunday, June 26, 2022


Dear Query Shark

The minute Elizabeth stepped off the train in Richmond, VA in 1860, she wanted to leave. After four years in Pennsylvania with Quaker relatives, she despises her new life in slave power high society.


I don't know what slave power high society means.



Her once close but now distant mother doesn’t help, setting her up to marry a buffoon while refusing to acknowledge her family’s abolitionist ways.


I'm VERY confused here. Mum is distant, ok, but she's still in the family, no?

So who are the abolitionists?


And what are abolitionist ways?

Ways means actions.

What is the family doing?

Or do you mean political opinions?



War breaks out after her mother’s sudden passing, 


The grammar here makes it sound like Mum's death caused the war.

I'm fairly certain that's not the case.


leaving Elizabeth to manage the household and farm, while deciding how to both hide and fight for her beliefs.

We don't know what Elizabeth's beliefs are. That should be explicit here.


Why isn't doing nothing an option?


Elizabeth first visits Union prisoners, baking them goods and bribing the guards for medicine. But when she houses a Confederate captain to save her image, 


Her image? It makes it sound as though this is some sort of flitter gibbet thing.

My guess is that social pressure is pretty intense in the capitol of the Confederacy.


she learns the weaknesses of the prison system, and plans escape routes, hiding Union soldiers in her secret attic and sending them back to the North through safe houses.



Her network grows as the War worsens. She plants a spy in the Confederate White House, sends daily intelligence to generals hidden in empty eggshells or encrypted with secret codes, and sends her brother to a safe house to avoid conscription. But her neighbors suspect her sympathizing ways and send ruthless detectives, the same detective who hanged and imprisoned other members of her network. Can she survive the war and bring the Union to victory?



Well, she's not going to bring the Union to victory. The Union Army backed by the industrial strength of the northern states is going to do that.

Your sentence structure is again saying something I'm pretty certain you don't intend.

This is a huge red flag in a  query. No matter how interested I am in the topic, this is the kind of thing that earns a pass.



 Miss Van Lew, my 170,000 word historical fiction novel,

170K is almost certainly an instant pass from most agents.

Historical fiction does run long, but not this long.



fictionalizes the true story of Civil War spy Elizabeth Van Lew, giving voice to an unknown heroine. 

She's hardly unknown.

There are quite a few books about her. One thing your query will need to do, even though you're querying a novel, is tell the reader what you're bringing to the table that is fresh and new.



Thank you for your time and consideration.


What you have is a series of events.

That's not plot.

Plot is choices and stakes.


Elizabeth Van Lew comes home to Richmond in 1860.

What problem does that create for her?

What are her choices to solve it?


If she's an abolitionist, what are her choices?

What's at stake with those choices?



But the word count means you're DOA no matter what.

That's the first thing to revise.





Sunday, May 29, 2022



Dear Query Shark,

Come with me to Crustacean University and join this year’s class of mismatched Pollywogs! Watch through this world of science imagination as Adrian keeps finding strange artifacts and accidentally turns Allison’s hair purple, Alex skyrockets his watershed board to the sky, some of the group gets lost in a cave of crystals and Simon falls into a stinky mess. All of this while there is a Dead-Zone outbreak!


I wouldn't have known what category this book was by reading the first paragraph. If I'm confused I generally pass. Most agents get so many queries they don't/won't/can't spend time trying to figure out what you're pitching.


You want to avoid that.


The way to avoid that is starting with the name of the main character and what problem has befallen them. 


If you think the way to avoid this is to put the category in the subject line, you're half right. If you said this was middle grade educational fiction in the subject line, I would have passed then.



Educational books are not trade books. They're acquired and sold much differently.


But this really isn't an educational book; it's a collection of stories (you say so below.)


Join the Pollywogs as they make their way through a series of adventures, blunders, and classroom lab activities as they learn the principles and concepts of ocean literacy. While learning about the ocean environment these new Pollywogs will dodge the Evil Dr. Debris, a giant squid, and toothy sharks! It will surely be a challenging year for these new ocean explorers as they encounter these and many other dangers along the way. While all of this is happening, the Pollywogs find clues to an ancient island puzzle saving Crustacean Island! Learning important life lessons as they go fishing with their minds, finding answers to their curious Crustacean questions in their first set of adventures.


There's no story here.


Middle grade books are story-driven.


If there's educational aspect, it should not the focus of the query or the book.

You should read this book cause you'll learn something is the kiss of death in a sales pitch —and not just for kids books.

The Pollywog Tails

Puns in the title can be a database nightmare.

Don't outsmart yourself here.


is a collection of watery modern adventures that is reminiscent of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,


which was first published in 1869. Using it as a reference point misses the point of comps. You need current books.


It's also adult science fiction, and that's not what you're describing here (as far as I can tell.)


with a touch of The Magic School Bus

1986. Same problem.



woven throughout along with a kick of Kratts creatures.


I had to google this one, but again 1996 is before your target readers were born.


Effective comps share the specs of your book: what shelf it goes on in the bookstore, target audience, thematic elements. They're also recent, pubbed no earlier than 2018 and 2019 is better.


 Crustacean University is led by Dean Crusty, a tough ole’ crab, Scud his amphipod assistant along with the Professors that teach at Crustacean University. And don’t forget the Island’s resident Researcher’s,


it's plural, not possessive. Researchers. No apostrophe.

Yes, I notice that kind of things.


Sure typos happen but that's why you run this by Miss Picklepuss, the copy editor whose idea of a wild night is splitting infinitives after a brewsky or two.

Scuba Scooter and Surfer Joe, together with Molly who keeps track of everyone and everything.


Middle grade books need a middle grade protagonist.

They're often written in first person as well.

They need a plot: what dilemma does the main character face?


The Pollywog Tails, Ancient Secretes and the Mysterious Dead Zones is a mid-grade Educational Fiction Short Story series, where S.T.E.M/S.T.E.A.M concepts meet ocean literacy and is the first Pollywog installment of a planned series of five short-story themed volume sets that are based at Crustacean University. This first introductory set of adventurous tails reads in at 5 volumes varying between 14,00-40,000 words each volume.


I'm not sure you would know this but a series of books needs to have books that are roughly the same length. 40K is 3x as long as 14K.


And you query ONE book, ONE story at a time.


With the need for the understanding of ocean sciences and a basic introduction to S.T.E.M./S.T.E.A.M concepts, and nothing recent on the shelves



When a writer tells me there's nothing recent on the shelves, I ALWAYS go look for myself.


Here's a list of 15, and just about sharks.


About half of these are current enough to count as recent. 


This is where I'd stop reading the query. 


A lot of this is fixable, but not knowing your category is a deal breaker. It means you don't know what's fresh and new cause you don't know what's been done before


I have created Crustacean University—a magical campus where readers are introduced to these principles and ideas through creative storytelling.


You can't set a middle grade book at a university.

Middle grade kids want to read about kids like them, and that means middle school.


I have always had the ocean close to my heart, both as a child and as a sailor in the U.S. Navy. As an avid saltwater aquarist, I have written and published articles for the local aquarium societies and have made online contributions to Reef2Reef website as well. Thank you for taking an interest in the entertaining Pollywog Tails.



You're not a server at Applebee's.

This is a business letter.



Close with Thank you for your time and consideration or something similar.

The closing isn't a deal breaker of course, but it's like shining your shoes for a job interview. You want to convey a business like demeanor.



I'm not sure how much current middle grade you've read.

I usually say you need to have read 100 books in your category before you should write a book, let alone query one.


That standard seems applicable here.


Middle grade needs a middle grade main character.

There needs to be ONE story per query.


That you envision this as a series is mentioned in the housekeeping section. 



Read more. A lot more.

Revise to tell us one story.




Monday, December 13, 2021

#339 Revision #1


Question: When comping a series, does the 3-year rule apply to the most recent installment or to the first?  What if the series hasn't been concluded yet? 

You want to use comps that are as close to the specs of your book as you can. That means using the first book of any series because yours is the first book in your series. And you want that first book to have been pubbed recently, no earlier than 2018 and 2019 is better.

If you're banging your head against the wall on a comp search, you're doing it right. 


Dear Query Shark,


Three years ago, Aman once had an entire barn full of horses he loved.  Unfortunately for them, the Düzen were desperate for food.


Three years ago, Düzen soldiers invaded Aman's village, slaughtering the animals he had been entrusted with.   

Let's put this sentence about the Düzen soldiers in the first paragraph, then start the next paragraph where there's a shift in time.



Three years ago, Aman once had an entire barn full of horses he loved.  Unfortunately for them, the Düzen were desperate for food.  Düzen soldiers invaded Aman's village, slaughtering the animals he had been entrusted with.



 New paragraph here for shift in time.

Now in his early twenties, Aman serves in the Corthiaks' heavy cavalry, hiding his guilt, grief, and self-loathing from his fellow soldiers.  His only source of hope, the one horse he has left, is old and inexperienced with combat—far from an ideal war horse.   


I stumbled over source of hope here because we don't have any sense of what Aman wants. You've described how he is now, but not what he wants.


Surrounded by hardened warriors and their younger, better-trained steeds, (some of whom aren't even horses,) Aman can't help but wonder if he or his horse really belong here.


I am intrigued by a cavalry that doesn't have horses, that's a nice detail to include. 


The Düzen have a new king, named Karib, and he wants peace with the Corthiaks.   


And here is where I lose the thread of the plot. 


Aman is sent to recount the story of his village to Karib, but he didn't take his last horse into war so that he could forgive the Düzen.  

After all, Karib believes that animal welfare means nothing in times of human suffering.  He and his soldiers would kill this horse in a heartbeat, along with anything else that isn't human.  


 Well, the Düzen should all burn in hell of course BUT you've set them up here. In the first paragraph, they slaughtered horses for food. Understandable but yucky. But here they are simply equicidal maniacs and that's a whole different bucket of entrails.

If Karib wants peace, what's standing in his way? What does Aman need to do?

Whether from a negotiator's seat or a war saddle, Aman must show Karib that animals are worth more than their weight on a butcher's scale. 

or what? The or what is what's at stake, and that's what you need here. 


 One will have him face difficult questions about the value of animal life and the ethics of eating meat, but the other will pit him against hordes of infantry that outnumber the Corthiaks forty to one, volleys of arrows that darken the skies, and rideable, venomous, twenty-foot carnivorous lizards.   


This sentence is 49 words long. That means it's got too much information in it for your reader to absorb easily.  Let's cut it down to two or three shorter sentences for easier understanding. 


 One will have him face difficult questions about the value of animal life and the ethics of eating meat.

One what? It's not clear who/what you mean. 


 Nothing is more off-putting in an otherwise good query than the idea the book is some message driven polemic. No one reads novels to hear about the ethics of eating meat. They read novels for the story.


If you want themes about the ethics of eating meat in the novel, that's up to you, but here in the query focus on the story.


but The other will pit him against hordes of infantry that outnumber the Corthiaks forty to one, volleys of arrows that darken the skies, and rideable, venomous, twenty-foot carnivorous lizards.   


This is an odd choice in that they don't seem to be alternatives. You can philosophize about eating meat while you battle lizards. There doesn't seem to be an either/or here, and that's what you need. 


Either way, he cannot hope to succeed without his fellow cavalrymen, and the horse who has carried him all this way.

CURSORIAL is an 82,000-word work of adult fantasy. You can add here: It explores themes of the ethics of eating plants etc.  

You can mention themes here (rather than above). I know I've said in earlier QS posts that you don't need them, and you don't BUT it can help elevate the query beyond plot points and characters.


It will appeal to fans of The Masquerade (by Seth Dickinson) 

When you list comps in a query, the first thing I do is look at the books on Amazon. The Masquerade appears to be the name of the series, not the first book. And the first book, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, was pubbed in 2016.   You need to use titles of books, not series. Sales figures are by book, and that's what we look at.  And of course, the book is too old to be an effective comp.

 But the description of the book is utterly compelling. 

Tomorrow, on the beach, Baru Cormorant will look up and see red sails on the horizon.

The Empire of Masks is coming, armed with coin and ink, doctrine and compass, soap and lies. They will conquer Baru’s island, rewrite her culture, criminalize her customs, and dispose of one of her fathers. But Baru is patient. She'll swallow her hate, join the Masquerade, and claw her way high enough up the rungs of power to set her people free.

To test her loyalty, the Masquerade will send Baru to bring order to distant Aurdwynn, a snakepit of rebels, informants, and seditious dukes. But Baru is a savant in games of power, as ruthless in her tactics as she is fixated on her goals. In the calculus of her schemes, all ledgers must be balanced, and the price of liberation paid in full.

 If I saw that in a query I'd fall all over myself to request the full.

The closer you can come to this vivid writing, the better.


and The Unbroken (by C. L. Clark).


 Don't put parentheses around the author's names.

I've seen a lot of that recently. There's probably some query advice that says to do so, but don't. 


I'm an equestrian, and an absolute geek for natural history, paleontology, medieval warfare, power metal music, and the color green. This is a terrific bio. It's the most vivid thing in the query. That tells me you're holding back in the query, maybe trying to be all serious and business like. Businesslike does not mean flat. Vivify!


Thank you for your time and consideration.

 I don't have a sense of the plot there that would compel me to request a full.

What does Aman want?

What does Karib want?

What's getting in the way of each of them getting it?

What choices do they face?  What sacrifices will be required?


Don't get lost in the weeds with lizards and vegans.

Focus on the plot. 




Original query

Question: I realize my comp titles are rather old, but I find them to be the best representatives of the emotional tone of this story. I've literally had beta readers tell me that they can't think of comp titles, so I went with my gut on this one. Is it a dealbreaker that the most recent comp title is almost 20 years old now?


Comp titles need to be recent, no more than three years old (no earlier than 2018).

It's not up to your beta readers to find them (nice try). This is your job.

Dear Query Shark,

Aman once had an entire barn full of horses he loved. Today, only one of them is still alive.

Aman and his horse, Arty, barely survived when the Sacramouth army invaded their village and slaughtered everything in sight.

I thought Sacramouth was a person. Turns out, later in the query, it's a country. To avoid that misapprehension you might add the army.

Three years have since passed, and Aman and Arty now serve in Aerdoth's heavy cavalry together, seeking vengeance against the people who took everything from them.

You need to tell us what problem Aman faces. You have to get plot on the page here.

To Aman's dismay, the King of Sacramouth agrees to host a series of peace talks with Aerdoth. Aman is sent as an ambassador to recount his story to the King, but refuses to forgive him for what his country did. However, as the peace talks begin, the King proves to be more persuasive than even Aman could have foreseen.

Persuasive about what? The last thing you want to do in a query is be coy!

The threat of war looms throughout the negotiations, and Aman faces difficult questions about the value of animal life, his own capability, and the relationships that he chooses to make. His only hopes of success lie within his own intuition, his fellow cavalrymen, and of course, Arty.

The plot is not clear. Aman faces difficult questions, ok, but what problem does he have? You've said his only hope of success, but success at what? Plot must be on the page.

CURSORIAL is a 55,000-word war story that skirts the line between fantasy and ecofiction.

This is fantasy. The question is which shelf: adult or MG.

You have an adult plot and it sounds like Aman is also an adult (or at least not a child.)

But 55K is way too short for an adult fantasy novel. Fantasy needs world building and world building needs words. And the comps below are kids.

It closely follows the bond between horse and rider,

Really? Cause there's no sense of that here in the query.

inspired greatly by works such as War Horse (by Michael Morpurgo) and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. The story can stand alone, but is also the first of a planned series.

War Horse is for grades 4-7. Spirit is an animated movie (not a book) ie for kids. That and your word count signal make me think this is not an adult book.

I'm an equestrian, and an absolute geek for natural history, paleontology, medieval warfare, and the color green.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Another thing that leaps off the page to me is the plethora of A-names: Aman, Arty, Aerdoth.

But the biggest problem here is you don't know your shelf. You've got adult themes, and MG comps.

This is confusing, and confusing often leads to an instant pass.

If you can't find suitable comps, you're searching too narrowly OR you haven't read enough in your category.

If you're having trouble finding comps you might try reading reviews in Publishers Weekly (which is NOT the same as Publishers Marketplace). Your library has a subscription to PW, but they don't put it out in the circulation area. You'll have to ask. Read the reviews going back a year or two. It will take you a while, but it's worth it.

Get plot on the page, and get comps that reflect the book.


Sunday, November 7, 2021


Dear QueryShark:

College is supposed to be full of new experiences, but a failed assassination attempt shouldn’t be one of them. At least, that’s Anna Michael’s opinion.



You want your first sentence to be as taut and compelling as possible.

Reordering the sentences will help with that:


College is supposed to be full of new experiences, but 

A failed assassination attempt shouldn’t be one of the new experiences of college.  


This is awkwardly worded but you get the idea. Start with the thing that's going to hook your reader's attention. 


 But when you look at that revised sentence, it still doesn't really do the job well, does it?


Revision is almost never one and done (well, typos: fix and finished)

So, let's remember that starting with the main character's name is almost always a good idea.


Anna Michaels wasn't expecting an attempt on her life to be one of her new college experiences

Still not great, but that's also the nature of revision.

So let's reorder the elements again:


Anna Michaels didn't think one of her new college experiences would be surviving an attempt on her life.



You prod and poke and try a gazillion ways to make this sound taut and compelling.


 Once you think you've got it, let it rest for at least a day, then go back the next day and look at it with fresh eyes.


At least, that’s Anna Michael’s opinion.

I think we can all agree this is not something we think is a benefit of enrolling in college.

The problem with starting with something as attention getting as a failed assassination attempt is that your reader is keen to know what happens next.


And if you don't provide that info, the reader is disappointed.


There is no connection between how you start and the next paragraph.

All Anna wants is to find her father’s murderer and protect her mother. 

And what does this have to do with her going to college? 

Did you include college to signal her age?

I think that's going to confound you if college is never mentioned again.


And now she’s fleeing her hometown with two strangers who claim to know her better than she knows herself. They introduce her to a world that exists alongside her own, a world where a girl can walk through walls and a boy can affect time.


Unless walking through walls and affecting time are gender-specific abilities you might reconsider how you describe them.

She uncovers a forgotten childhood where she grew up surrounded by magic . . . as the daughter of the king and queen. And a deadly coup has just made Anna the sole member of the monarchy. 

being specific usually helps your reader get a fuller picture. Anna is the sole surviving member of the monarchy not just the sole member.

The strangers, Brie and her brother Max, want Anna to save the magical community. It means discovering who wants to end the monarchy—and why. Were they responsible for the death of her father? As Anna gets involved deeper and deeper into the insurgency . . . she might not be on the right side of this war after all. 

Really? Why?

What's at stake here?

The King and Queen are dead, Anna is the next in line.

So what?

In other words, what happens if she isn't on the right side?

What's at stake for her? For the kingdom?

Max knows more about her altered memories than he’s willing to tell her. Even though she trusts him with her life, maybe even falls in love with him, she knows she shouldn’t. A relationship with him would mean forfeiting the crown and everything they’re fighting for.

Anna must decide if finding her father’s killer and stepping into the role of queen is worth the sacrifice of her identity and family, when she’s already lost her parents and the woman who raised her. She learns one thing: It will be the death of Anna Michaels.

Long live the Queen.

SIX & TIME (123,000)  is a New Adult


New Adult isn't really a category you want to use.

It started off being just what you'd think it would be: books for people who are post-YA. Then it morphed into something more like erotica light: 50 Shades of Something Wicked This Way Comes kinda thing.


If your main characters are college age, this is adult fantasy.


But the problem here is that you're describing a book that uses many themes associated with YA.


Confusing indeed.

When agents are confused, they pass.  Clarity is essential in a query.

contemporary fantasy novel complete at 123,000 words.  

You don't need to say it's complete. That's assumed.


This is the first in a planned series. It will appeal to fans of Avatar: the Last Airbender and The Ash Princess (by Laura Sebastian).


Always include the author with the title of your comp books.

Titles are not subject to copyright; more than one book can be called The QueryShark's Guide to Tasteful Writers.


Also The Ash Princess is YA.  Your comps must be on the same shelf as your book. (You'll gnash your teeth trying to find NA comps, which is another indicator you need to revise the ages, or the category)


While I work with numbers as a tax professional during the day, I am ruled by writing at all hours.


This is the kind of hyperbolic statement that makes you sound like an amateur.

I hope you've got a life other than writing.


This is the kind of thing that makes you sound LESS enticing not more.


Leave it for another forum.


 I am pursuing my Master in Fine Arts with a focus in Creative Writing. (you might want to add which school)

Thank you for your consideration. 




- Here's where I shoot myself in the foot. This book can NOT stand alone. I know, I know. But I reached 100,000 at the "halfway" mark of the original novel, so I decided to split it in two with a cliffhanger ending.


Talk about one quick way to make your readers HATE YOU.


Back in the day when cliffhangers were more the norm, you only had to wait a week to find out what happened.


There can be a year between Book One and Book Two.

Some are faster, but the fastest I've ever seen was three months.


You're asking NEW fans to wait three months to resolve things?

This is a recipe for disaster. And disaster these days means being trashed on Goodreads, Amazon and any other forum people can use to complain in.


The closest I've read to a cliffhanger recently was Lee Child's 61 Hours (pubbed March 18, 2010) and resolved in Worth Dying For (October 19, 2010). It was his 14th book, not his debut.


I could always remove a subplot or two, but part of the reason why this novel works is it takes the tired "royal chosen one with elemental magic" trope and turns it around - without the layers, this book is generic as hell. 


 It would help if that were on the page here, but it's not.



Revise and resend.