Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Dear Query Shark,

Sallie Talbot is most content when her life on the Carolina seashore is calm, quiet, and peaceful. She is therefore most unsettled one evening when her spunky Great Aunt Ruth is unexpectedly checked into the hospital. Even more unsettling, however, is what Aunt Ruth says when Sallie comes to visit. Ruth tells the story of her secret, long-lost love, Arturo Zuruec, whom she met in an obscure Peruvian village and fell in love with many years ago. An unfortunate twist of fate separated the two, and Ruth hasn’t seen or heard from Arturo in over fifty years. Being separated from him is a decades-old regret that Ruth insists only Sallie can set right.

You've used 113 words here to say one thing: Sallie's Aunt Ruth wants her to find a long lost love.
When I see this kind of word sprawl I know I'm going to find the exact same kind of writing in the novel. I stop reading right here. Pare this down. You don't have to be James Ellroy; you do have to practice an economy of words.

Unable to deny her aunt’s dying plea, Sallie agrees to fly to Peru, track down Arturo, and deliver a message on Ruth’s behalf. Easier said than done. In her sickly state Ruth cannot recall many details about the place she and Arturo met, and only remembers that it was a northern Andean city ‘in the clouds.’ What kind of people live in the clouds? Ruth also entrusts Sallie with Arturo’s ring, a precious golden relic that boasts beautiful ancient American artwork but is hardly helpful for tracking Arturo down. With nothing but Ruth’s scant testimony to go on, Sallie quickly realizes how utterly unprepared she is for the journey.

A lost ring? A city in the clouds? These are both so closely identified with other books and movies that they don't sound either fresh or new here.

And honest to helvetica, I absolutely fail to understand why Sallie doesn't just soothe Aunt Ruth with lies and forget the whole thing. Why would she do this? What's in it for her?

Amidst the chaos of unknown cities and villages, and virtually unable to communicate with the locals, Sallie grapples with the fear of making wrong decisions. How fully should she trust the memories and directions of her ill, aging aunt? What will happen if she decides to accept the help of Gabe Foster, an irresistibly handsome stranger who, after hearing about the ‘clouds’ and seeing the priceless ring, says he knows the way? Even if Sallie does accept Gabe’s help, she can’t help but wonder what chance they really have of finding Arturo anyway, when steaming jungles, belligerent natives, and fifty long years are standing in their way. With Ruth’s happiness and Sallie’s own survival on the line, will Sallie be able to abandon her self-doubt and quiet ways to get the job done?

Ruth's happiness is on the line? Wait a second here. She's been without Arturo for FIFTY FRIGGING YEARS!! You can't just say things about characters because you need them to be true for the book to work.

For a book to have a cohesive emotional framework, readers must be convinced that the characters are acting in a way that makes sense. Makes sense to the reader AND makes sense to the character. Because we don't know Ruth at all (and can't in the brief space of a query letter) you have to tell us WHY her happiness suddenly depends on this.

And honest to hortonwhoheardawho, there are a lot of unhappy people in the world. I sure as heck wouldn't be traipsing off to CloudCuckooLand for anything other than cold hard cash or a signed representation agreement with Thomas Pynchon. In other words, logical tangible benefits to ME. Altruism is a very sketchy motivation.

Wander Me Home is complete at 89,000 words. I have previously had shorter selections published in (redacted) magazine, was named a notable essay writer for (redacted) and am winner of the 2009 (redacted) Creative Writing Contest. I am a graduate of (redacted), with a BA in American Studies.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

I stopped reading at paragraph one and sent a form rejection.


Dear Query Shark,

I would like to invite you to review my novel Wander Me Home, a work of women's fiction complete at 89,000 words. A tale of escape from the mundane, Wander Me Home tells a story of untamed jungles, hidden villages, and self discovery. Below is a brief description.

Start with the story. The paragraph above is drenched with generalities that don't entice me to read further down the page, let alone the book.

Sallie Talbot may not have the life she’s always dreamed of, but she prides herself on finding joy in the simple things. Sure, she wastes her talents every day working for a two-faced employer who has all the intelligence and grace of a burnt-out light bulb, but at least she has a roof over her head.

Sallie maintains that life is good as long as things are quiet, calm, and running smoothly. Her quiet life is occasionally interrupted because she has the unenviable task of running interference between her famously hot-tempered mother and beloved Great-Aunt Ruth (a woman of questionable sanity immensely fond of spinning tales of youthful exploits in mysterious Peruvian villages), but for the most part Sallie’s life is quite calm.

Again, start with something interesting. The fact that Sallie likes calm can be dealt with in one phrase: Sallie values a calm*, well-running life.

We know something is going to disturb that calm. Get on with telling us what it is:

However, when a cool, Carolina October brings with it a series of sickening shocks, Sallie's serene, easy life is turned upside down, especially when her vibrant great-aunt takes ill and makes a startling confession, followed by a desperate plea: Will Sallie please drop everything and fly to an unnamed Peruvian village in search of Ruth’s long lost love, Arturo Zuruec, whom she hasn’t seen or heard from in over fifty years?

You told us Aunt Ruth was insane. If Sallie values inner peace why would she do something so obviously irrational? You have all the description here except that matters: WHY Sallie decides to do this. What does Aunt Ruth say that persuades her? Or does she just say "oh fuck it, I'm tired of inner peace, bring on the Aztec Incan warriors"

You have to give me enough to make me believe the character's choices. You can't just send her to Peru cause you need her there.

An uncharacteristic, blind leap of faith lands Sallie in faraway Lima, Peru, with her best friend and baby brother at her side. (she's taking a baby?? Be careful how you use words) Festivals, jungles, natives, and not-so-unexpected betrayals are just a few of the things that mark Sallie’s uncertain path towards Arturo Zuruec, and when a golden Adonis of a stranger, the handsome Gabe Foster, unexpectedly comes to Sallie's aid in a moment of distress, she begins to think that Gabe is meant to save her in more ways than one. Sallie can't help but wonder if she has anything to offer in return.

Golden Adonis is Greek. You're telling us a story set in Peru.

Continually lighthearted and at times surprisingly thoughtful, Cadence brings laughter and intrigue to a story of belated self-discovery, and resoundingly affirms that true love knows no bounds.

Who or what is Cadence?
Leave this whole paragraph out. It doesn't say anything. Use the words you save here to elaborate on what's important: What choices does Sallie face, what decision does she have to make; what's at stake, and why will I care. SHOW me the answers to these questions, don't tell me.

Although it is my first complete novel, I have previously had shorter selections published in (redacted) magazine, was named a notable essay writer for (redacted) and am winner of the 2009 (redacted) Creative Writing Contest. I am a graduate of (redacted), with a BA in American Studies.

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

This is essentially a different take on Romancing The Stone. You've got to give me something more specific to your book so it doesn't look like an 80's movie.

Start over.

Form rejection.

*there was a typo here that's mentioned in the comments, but now fixed.


worldofhiglet said...

Another incisive chunk of insight. FInding your site has simultaneously open my eyes to what agents are looking for and terrified me. But I'm facing my fear and will submit to your tender mercies soon. Please continue to do these reviews - they are absolutely gold.

(Note: lil' typo in this para:

"Again, start with something interesting. The fact that Sallie likes calm can be dealt with in one phrase: Sallie values a call, well-running life"


It didn't stop me reading just raised the bar...I mean, I like your review.)

Skeptic said...

(Aztec = Mexico; Inca = Peru). :)

Barb said...

While I'm deep in rewriting at the moment and not ready to begin working on putting a query together, comments like this are really assisting with my writing.

By reading your feedback, I'm thinking about whether I have my characters doing anything that may not seem rational and believable to readers.

This blog serves a lot of purposes - thank you.

Alissa said...

I think the opening paragraph makes for a great setup. I am intrigued, but then we get into more of the calm and the talk of her mother and aunt goes nowhere. I think the second paragraph should have her suddenly on her way to Peru to search for the mysterious Arturo, as for the details of what she is doing going to Peru, well all I'm sure that will all be explained in extensive detail in the novel. After that it seemed that things became too vague for me.

Lumpy Dog said...

So this is how you spent your holiday weekend? Sharking around?

Emily Ruth said...

Sounds like Destinos to me ;)

...or maybe no one else had to watch that in spanish class

Aimless Writer said...

Could be a good book here but I think you need to cut the fluff.
Mostly the first three paragraphs. Save the bio-her simple life, two-faced employer- for the book. Give me her challenge and what she risks to tackle it.
Something like; When a beloved aunt falls ill and asks Sallie to find her long lost love she risks everything blah blah blah.
I loved Romancing the Stone so I think this could be good too as long as it's different enough.
Good luck!

Bane of Anubis said...

Thanks, Ms. Reid, for your efforts on all of these.

Sarahlynn said...

I was distracted by too many strings of adjectives throughout, which makes me wonder if the ms would read the same way.

Kat said...

Mixed analogies asides, 'Adonis' has a better ring to it than 'Apocatequil'...

Brigid said...

This blog kicks ass.

Janet, you mention leading with the story for your opening paragraph, which is something I do. But I recently received a very rude rejection from an agent who then directed me to his blog for why I was rejected. In a blind panic, I opened the blog, worried he had taken my query and put it up on his site as a warning to other writers or something.

But it was a blog entry about common query mistakes, and one of them was leading with story instead of an introduction to who you are and why you're writing.

I've always done what you mention here, and led with story, but maybe I'm misinterpreting? Should there be an introductory sentence about the title, the word count, the genre, etc.?

Anonymous said...

So glad to see more queries up! Love the comments here.

BuffySquirrel said...

Brigid, individual agents have different tastes. That's why it pays to research them :).

The Rejection Queen said...

oh praise the lord that I am done with this query letter crap! Well, not techincally. I maybe getting published, but without an agent.

K. Andrew Smith said...

Note to the Shark: You have a typo in your 3rd paragraph. "Sooth" should be "soothe."

(Feel free to delete this comment)

Janet Reid said...

Forsooth why would I delete the comment?

K. Andrew Smith said...

Just in case you wanted to maintain the illusion of perfection.

Of course, that's assuming it is an illusion.

Anonymous said...

yes, i am actually reading ALL of the archives.

yes, i am finally leaving a comment and, yes, it's all because i have loved the phrase "CloudCuckooLand" since the 80s when i first saw it as the name of an album (okay, CD) by The Lightning Seeds.

you rock.