Monday, September 5, 2022



Question: I’m a former Christian so I approached this work and pantheon with respect, but I also wanted to express the importance of separating church and state. From my understanding Christian Fiction has underlying themes/motifs relating to the faith. Christian Fiction isn’t my goal, I just wanted to bring what I know into the realm of spellswords and gunslingers. Do I need to state that this is not explicitly intended for Christians in my query? I don’t want to mislead anyone.


Dear Query Shark,


Jericho Brightbolt trudges into the withered husk of a town, weary from scavenging through the desert wasteland.


His search for food and water leads him directly into a demon ambush. The doors burst open around him and the street floods with the damned.


Jericho unleashes his astonishing speed as a storm disciple, brandishing his revolver and katana in a barrage of muzzle flashes and steel. 


You've got about 65 words here to set up the start of the story: Jericho has piqued the Devil's interest.

How much of this do you really need?


This isn't plot, and it's not character development. It's just set up. You only get 250-300 words in a query. You don't want to use 20-25% of them on set up?


Before the final demon is vanquished, Jericho discovers he’s piqued the Devil’s interest.


The Devil needs him brought to Hell in order to restore the Aether, something dismissed as an ancient myth.


It will help if we know what the Devil wants here. He wants Jericho to restore the Aether, got it, but what is Aether and why is Jericho the (only) guy who can restore it? What problem would that solve for him (the Devil)?


Jericho flees home to Nazareth in a desperate attempt to hide, a problem in itself. His face is peppered across the city on wanted posters for crimes he did not commit. 


I assume you chose Nazareth on purpose.

If you want to avoid the slings and arrows of outrage, consider using a different name for the town.



Lo and behold, Jericho finds his only ally in a mess of her own. Mason Earthbreaker is being forced out of active duty as a soldier and thrust into arranged marriage for child-bearing.


It’s wedlock in two days, or prison. She has devoted her life to combating the demons since she lost her brother to possession, and this is the thanks she gets.


Jericho sneaks in looking for Mason, and she does her best to shoulder his crisis while wrestling with exchanging her armor for a wedding ring.


I thought Jericho was already in Nazareth? And we already know Mason's predicament.

Now you have him sneaking in, looking for Mason; how does he know about her predicament?


In short form work like a query, unfolding the story in chronological order goes a long way to making the query easy to follow.



When the demons lay siege to the city in the hunt for Jericho, Mason straps on her cuirass in defiance and heads to the battlefield, wielding her titanic strength as a stone disciple.

wielding her titanic strength as a stone disciple is confusing. What is a stone disciple?


 You used storm disciple above in reference to Jericho, but right now we don't know what disciples are. You don't explain it till later in the query.



You can just cut the reference here and avoid the need to explain anything.



Wanted by both Nazareth and the horde befalling


befalling is probably the wrong word here. It generally means something bad about to happen. I think you mean here is closer to besieging. 


 its walls, Jericho must choose his fate - help Mason shield the very people who will execute him, or let the demons drag him to Hell for the mysterious Aether.


 The stakes here are pretty small: Jericho's fate.




124K can be an auto-pass even for fantasy. 120K is often cited as the top word count. 


 is the first Dark Fantasy in a planned series set ages after the apocalypse.


This is a nice place to put the world building, but it will also help if you have themes. What is the book exploring?


The few million humans left have become a superhuman species known as disciples, each born with one of seven distinct physiologies respective to the archangels. While they battle the wasteland’s monsters, they must also navigate the ruptured socioeconomic terrain left in the wake of the archaic belief system that supports Nazareth’s infrastructure. 

I have no idea what navigate the ruptured socioeconomic terrain means.

Plain writing in a query is essential. This is not some sort of treatise. It's a novel. Your reader should be able to picture what you mean in her mind. 



It’s reminiscent of GUNMETAL GODS by Zamil Akhtar

This book is self-published so it's not an effective comp. Comps need to be published by a trade publisher (small or large.)



with some MASTER OF SORROWS by Justin Travis Call.

Always include the author's name with the title of your comp. Titles aren't subject to copyright so more than one book can have the same title.


I’m a furnace operator who works seventy hours a week on third shift, and my wife and I just welcomed our first child into the world. Between working and spending time with my son, I plod about like something a necromancer summoned. But don’t worry, I’ve learned to write during between bouts of microsleep.


Thank you for your consideration,


I don't think you need to worry about this being mistaken for Christian fiction.

Christian fiction has very specific tropes, and this query doesn't refer to any of them.

And since you call it dark fantasy, an agent reading this will know you intend it for the secular market.


But the larger problem is that I don't see enough story on the page, or reference to enough story in the summation to support 120K words.


Right now you have one character driving the plot, and the big question is what will happen to him.

 120K words needs a more epic sweep. Not quite Game of Thrones size, but certainly something like Leviathan Wakes (189K). 


Here's the description of Leviathan Wakes from the publisher's website:


Humanity has colonized the solar system—Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond—but the stars are still out of our reach.

Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, the Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for—and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to the Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations—and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.


 Notice there are two main characters, and the stakes are much more than personal. It's a bigger story.


When an agent checks the word count in a query, it's not only to see if it's too long or too short.

It's to assess if there's enough story to support a large count, or if there's  not enough story in a short word count.

One of the biggest problems with high word counts is that it can signal writing that is repetitive or  glacially paced (every moment described.)


I'm absolutely willing to read a taut, tightly paced novel of 127K if there's enough story to warrant the word count.


So you need more story in the query, or a ruthless reduction in word count.

 Focus on conveying mental images to your reader. Plain writing is VERY difficult. 




Friday, July 22, 2022



After reading the archives, banging my head on the wall of current comps, this is what I came up with. My biggest struggle has been the series in my head is one far reaching arc, with each novel containing its own smaller arc. Trying to pare that down into something manageable and interest grabbing without tangling delicate threads that weave and weft has been quite the challenge. I believe in this story, my question is; did I convince you to pick it up and be transported too?


Not yet, but that's the whole point of QueryShark. Revise till you get there!

Don't pare down the entire story, just focus on the start of the story.


Dear Query Shark,  

907 A.D. Britain is suffering birth pains of becoming a united land, divided into separate kingdoms, barely able to resist Danish assaults. Rhiannon, orphaned young during a savage incursion by the heathen Northmen was raised by a Viking warrior plagued by regret. Trained to be one of the best archers in the land, Rhiannon earns a name, The Northern Flame, 


I suggest adding The Northern Flame here, so that when you use it below, your reader is not confused about who you are talking about. 

and a vaunted place amongst King Anarawd ap Rhodri’s teulu, single-minded in her quest to avenge her parents.


 Ok, and?

What you need in a query is a sense of where the story is going. That's often shown by telling us what problem the main character faces.

Story is not events.

Story is NOT set up and background (what you have here).


Story starts with what problem does a character face, and what are her choices, and what's at stake.

How must she change/grow or what must she do to overcome that problem?


Rhiannon is a great archer.

She wants revenge for the slaughter of her parents.

What's the problem?

What are her choices?

What's at stake?


Mercia is ruled by King Alfred the Great’s daughter; the intrepid Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia.

It took a minute to sort out the who and what here.

Let's revise:


The intrepid Aethelflaed, daughter of King Alfred the Great, rules Mercia.

 It's a tad awkward, but it's clear. Revise further as needed.

She is threatened on all sides by invasion on all sides: of Danes and Norsemen intent on conquering everything in their path and subjugating her subjects.


subjugating her subjects is really awkward. You'll hear these things if you read your query aloud. 

Revise here for smoothness.

Hearing tales of The Northern Flame’s skill, she makes a deal with the Welsh king.


To do what?

Marry him?

Kill him?

Foist her mean sister off on him?


Commander Wulfric, a man haunted by the past, leads Lady Aethelflaed’s hearth-guard and is sent to retrieve the infamous archer. Opposed to bringing a foreigner to his land during these tumultuous times, yet unable to disobey his liege, he discovers a passionate woman who tests his patience and makes him question his vows to absolve his family’s name from the shadow of treason that cloaks him like a death shroud.


Rhiannon and Wulfric must find a way to trust each other before the Viking warlord, Ingimundr, lays siege to the burgh of Chester, annihilating the dream of a united country. They try and fail to resist their explosive passion while struggling to keep their sworn oaths of vengeance.


What makes this hard to read and absorb is you've got too much going on. For starters, you've got too many characters:


King Anarawd

King Alfred the Great


Commander Wulfric



Six named characters is three too many.

See below for notes on how to focus the query, but also get a sense of the series.


THE NORTHERN FLAME (122,000 words) is historical fiction that will appeal to fans of early medieval history like The Last Kingdom, by Bernard Cornwell


Was first published in 2006 so it's not an effective comp.

Effective comps are recent; pubbed in 2019 or later.



as well as sweeping historical romances such as Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon


First published in 1991, same problem


 along with strong female protagonists as in The Warrior Maiden, by Melanie Dickerson.


Pubbed in 2019, so that's ok, BUT take a look at the publisher: Thomas Nelson. Thomas Nelson publishes Christian fiction. Unless your novel is also Christian fiction (which I don't get the sense it is) you don't want to use this as a comp.


Your comps should be in the same category as your book. Christian fiction is a separate category.


THE NORTHERN FLAME can stand alone but I envision it as the start of a series.


Here's where you develop the series idea:

From above

Set in 907 A.D. Britain is suffering birth pains of becoming a united land, divided into separate kingdoms, barely able to resist Danish assaults.

develop this further of course.


New paragraph for bio.


I am a debut author, wife, stay-at-home mother working on my history degree, and wear so many hats I resemble the dog from Go Dog, Go! 


this is a terrific line. It gives your reader a sense of your wit.



New paragraph for pub credits.

My non-fiction essay, (Amazing) has been was published in the literary magazine (Woohoo!) winning and won 2nd place for best prose.



Thank you for your time and consideration,



As for getting the whole of the story line into the query, you can't.


What you can do though is give us the start of the story, and then sketch out the larger picture.

Using Game of Thrones as an example (cause almost everyone has read/seen it), Ned Stark has discovered the King is not the father of his children. When the King dies Ned is faced with the choice of staying silent while an illegitimate son ascends the throne, or going public and risking not just his life but those of his family.

That's the individual problem.

The thematic problem is who is entitled to rule.

You can get that on the page with meanwhile, or what he doesn't know.


Meanwhile, each of seven power hungry families is plotting to take the iron throne.

What none of them know is a pawn has just become a queen. And she has dragons.


We need plot and drama on the page to compel your reader to want more. 


Revise and resubmit.




Saturday, July 16, 2022

Newsletter subscription update

 I have to change platforms for the newsletter.

Mailchimp cuts off free use at 2000 subscribers and there were (a lot!) more of you than that.

I've switched to TinyLetter, but they ask that instead of just importing names, people subscribe.

It prevents a lot of bounce backs from stale addresses.

So, if you want to get the newsletter (and of course the reason this is happening is there's one in the works) just click here to resubscribe.

If you don't, no worries.

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.