Sunday, August 31, 2008


Dear Query Shark,

My completed 60,000 word manuscript, NODDING PINES, is a work of literary fiction that tells the story of a broken family through the three unique voices that comprise it.

Writing three unique voices is like going to the Writing Olympics. Just cause you look good in a Speedo doesn't make you Michael Phelps. When someone offers me a novel in three voices I cringe. Then the first, actually the ONLY, thing I do is watch how they use language. If the query letter is over written and pedantic, I have zero confidence you are the Michael Phelps of the Shark Pool.

First sign that elevates an eyebrow: that comprise it. (you don't actually need those words for a complete thought.) If you're writing three voices, you'd better have a very keen eye for extra words.

An emotionally unstable young man named Robbie feels as though he has less power over his own words than they have over him, and so he goes silent, refusing to speak to his teachers, classmates, or even his mother.

2nd ; young man named Robbie (Robbie feels he has less)
3rd ; that sentence has all the rhythm of a snake on skates i.e. not much.

Unable to overcome his preoccupation with language, Robbie decides to leave the country as a means of escape.

4th ; this is where my sardonic side takes over. What does leaving the country have to do with going silent? Is he expecting to just get by with sign language or something whilst in Andorra?

Upon his return, he not only discovers himself, but also the remnants of the father he never knew, realizing for the first time that the anxiety and desperation that he feels aren't his alone.

5th ; And here's where you lose me completely: remnants of the father he never knew. I have visions of shredded polo shirts and strips of jockey shorts hanging on the front gate. I know this isn't what you meant of course, but you are trying so hard to be all serious and shit that I can't take you seriously. Your earnestness shines through, and it just makes me want to throw a banana peel in front of you as you jog past. I know this is NOT a good thing about me, and in fact most agents (particularly those who don't actually run something called QUERY SHARK) might have a less bloodthirsty response, but you queried me, so there it is.

Even if you said the letters of the father he never knew you'd be better off.

The fact that you don't actually see this right now is why I doubt you can carry off the three voices thing.

The lost patriarch, Jason, had left behind a series of letters and stories in an attempt to explain himself and his obsessive love of writing that lead to his suicide. He also leaves behind Juliana, who unbeknownst to him, is pregnant with their son. Unable to overcome her similarly obsessive love of Jason, Juliana in turn writes a series of undeliverable letters to him, chronicling their courtship and their difficulties in accepting one another, while trying to somehow finally forgive him.

While reading their letters and learning his family's history, Robbie meets a young woman with whom he believes he may have fallen in love. Despite trying his best to balance these obsessive tendencies that he has inherited, Robbie feels as though he is confronted by a choice of his father's love of writing and his mother's love of love as they battle for dominance in his life. The quirky nature of the protagonist and the narrative each work hand in hand with the emotional story matter, giving it a combined appeal of wit and sensitivity.

I've pretty much stopped reading after the remnants line, but there are some lines that still make me cringe:

1. meets a young woman with whom he believes he may have fallen in love.. he meets her and falls in love instantly? he's in love with her before he meets her? she's a mailorder bride? I know I know, I'm dripping sarcasm here, but that's what happens when you are so caught up in sentence structure that you lose track of what you MEAN.

2. confronted by a choice...this is a false choice. You've set it up that way cause that's how you want the story to be. The story has to work organically. Most young guys even if they are emotionally unstable don't want to be anything like their old fogie remnants parents. They want to be their own bright shining selves. Think about yourself. Do you want to be your mom or your dad? Do you really feel you have to be one or the other?

As for my personal background, I am a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Central Florida. I have not been previously published, but until now, I have never submitted my work with the intention of publication.

And there it is: bango. This line does not convey what you think it does. It makes you sound like an arrogant brat. I'm pretty sure you're not. (right? right?) The reason is that you couple "I haven't been published" with "I haven't submitted." The reader intuits that you believe you have just to submit your work and publishers will fall upon it.

Well, maybe that will be so for you, but it is not my experience in publishing at all. My experience is you're gonna get the snot kicked out of you by rude agents rejecting your stuff and you're going to wonder why.

I am currently at work on my second novel, a futuristic tale of love and social decline. Influential contemporary writers include Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Yann Martel, as our works share a certain meta-fictional quality, along with the aforementioned bursts of humor that offset and highlight the emotion.

Leave out the list of people who influenced your work, ok? And please, don't compare yourself to them. After the earlier line it just makes me want to hunt you down drip sardonic on your keyboard.

I very much look forward to your reply.

Well, perhaps not quite as much as you thought.


Bottom line: you're 24. You just survived undergraduate school. Get a job and write at night. In two years, look back on this query letter and you'll see what I mean. You need some perspective.

Alternatively, start your own online 'zine. See the query letters and cover letters YOU get. Publish a few issues. Include your own work. Doing that will give you some experience that will help both your writing and your perspective.


talpianna said...

Not to mention that the title sounds like a Britcom starring John Cleese...

benwah said...

So THAT'S what's been holding me back from publication: submitting. Now I know.

Adam Heine said...

"3rd ; that sentence has all the rhythm of a snake on skates i.e. not much."

Have you ever seen a snake on skates?

Seriously, have you? What was it like?

Heather said...

There's a reason many readers shy away from anything labeled literary fiction. It has to do with putting style over substance. Three voices ≠ story. (Another reason some shy away is the perception that literary fiction is snooty -- not helped here by the whole "I'm not published because I haven't submitted yet" business.)

Lynne said...

I shall just add 'ouch.' Be careful, Grasshopper, you are in Sharkland.

C.J. Redwine said...

Everything the Shark said and one more: never TELL us you're funny or there are "bursts of humor" throughout the ms when you haven't made me crack a smile once.

talpianna said...

The reason is that you couple "I haven't been published" with "I haven't submitted." The reader intuits that you believe you have just to submit your work and publishers will fall upon it.

I believe this attitude worked for Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Anonymous said...

I just have to argue with the Shark on one of her suggestions...

First of all, budding writers are not qualified to run a magazine, online or otherwise. Editing anything takes experience and dedication, and will actually suck away from any time used to write. Trust me, I know.

Secondly, "Include your own work?" I shudder at this. This is what keeps so many new 'zines from making it: self publication. They are vanity presses, which are impossible to take seriously. That aside, you couldn't use those publications as credits in a query letter. That's on par with "I've published several stories on my blog." Just throw any hopes of being a professional right out the window.

Now, working as a slush reader on an already established magazine is a great suggestion. You do learn alot, and you can appreciate an editor/agent's job. It will help your own writing and your perspective. I highly recommend it.

But starting your own, with no publications under your belt and no experience? No.

Publishing your own work in your own new 'zine? Definitely no.

There. Point argued.

BuffySquirrel said...

Eh, an obsession with writing leads to divorce, annoyed (because unfed) cats and a house that looks like a refugee from a particularly vicious burglary.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

There is nothing like reading a slushpile to give a writer perspective.

Emily Cross said...

*looks nervous and gulps*

"You need some perspective."

This makes me nervous, being a snot nosed brat myself at 21.

Seriously though, i'm curious - do writers often put ages on queries? And also does being under 25 would make a Literary Agent squirm?