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.

#114-Revised Twice, and yes, we have a winner

Dear Query Shark:

“I Rode With Teddy Roosevelt”(working title)

IN 1883, 15- year-old Scottie Burns is hired by a young, vibrant Theodore Roosevelt to work on his Dakota ranch. Like teenaged boys ever since, he finds a role model in this dashing, charismatic hunter/ rancher. As he grows ever closer to TR, Scottie also discovers a
darker, more cynical side to this political animal. TR, in turn, sees Scottie as a good hunting and fishing companion, personal aide and sounding board for his ideas.

Scottie matures as America grows in world stature, helped along by TR’s expansionist sentiments and racial “profiling” -- sentiments Scottie comes to seriously question. He also sees TR quick to practice opportunistic cruelty to his oldest allies if it advances his political career. Scottie will experience that betrayal when he join’s TR’s Rough Riders invading Cuba. The two won’t meet again until the Pan American Exposition, three years later.

This 43,000-word novella offer’s Scottie’s view of the unromantic cowboy life and his fascination with the era’s technological advances: the bicycle, automobile, earliest movies and the birth of press photography

I am a former a reporter, editor and columnist for the (redacted), have freelanced articles for regional and national magazines, have been anthologized and have a book about “classic” cameras still in print. I know the value of good editing, respond to it, and am trained
to meet deadlines.

This could be an interesting read for middle schoolboys. My teacher friends say that's a gap to be filled. I think their fathers would like it as well.

You should have better marketing ideas. May I send you some, or all off the manuscript?

Why yes, yes you can.

This is a really good revision, and the querier is benefiting from my feverish hunt for middle grade books for boys, particularly those based on real people.

First Revision
Dear Query Shark

Scottie Burns trailed along with Teddy Roosevelt from 1883 until breaking with the Chief after the Spanish-American War, fed up with seeing TR’s ever darker side. Meeting his idol in 1883 and working on Teddy Roosevelt’s Dakota ranch, the two become hunting companions.

After reading paragraph 3, it's clear we need to start this, or mention early on how old Scottie Burns is. (YA novels really need to have YA-age protagonists)

This first sentence pretty much sucks, and my guess is you'll see it now too. There's no sense of excitement here, no sense of drawing us in to adventure. You're still doing what you did in the original: giving us too much information.

You need a snappier first line. It can take days to get it right. Anything that has to be short and punchy is harder to write than a 250 word paragraph.

Teddy takes him back to New York after the Great Die-Off. T R needs to earn a living and has always been in politics. Scottie becomes his personal assistant, sounding board for ideas, and, in time, skeptical of Teddy’s Imperialistic tendencies. He detests the cavalier attitude
Teddy shows -- to even his closest allies -- on his way to the top and they part ways. As the 20th Century dawns, Scottie realizes he has seen the nation become a world power.

Focus on Scottie, not TR. That's the story. Tell us what the great Die-Off is. (My guess without googling is the 1919 epidemic)

This odd novel has me stymied: my wife says it could be a fine Young Adult novel-- especially for middle school boys for whom there is a dearth of books with “guy stuff” to pique the interest of otherwise lazy readers. I think adult Teddy Roosevelt admirers also will be interested. “A Rough Ride With Teddy” has ranch life hunting, fishing, the wonders of the current electromechanical age then dawning -- it even has some love and war.

Never ever use the word lazy with reader in a query letter. Those guys are going to be your audience. Treat them with respect.

How many words in the novel?

I got my first byline at age 13 and, hooked by newspapers, worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for the Buffalo News. I also wrote freelance magazine articles, saw work anthologized and authored a book on co;collecting and using “classic” cameras. I thus know a fair amount about publishing, about the help editors can give any writing, and -- for sure -- how to meet deadlines.

A full synopsis and chapters attached.

NO NO NO. NEVER EVER attach anything to a query letter unless the instructions specifically say "attach." If the instructions say anything else, such as 'include' 'contain' 'enclose' etc, put them in the body of the email.

You're still in reporter mode here; standing back and observing. Get into the story. Be partisan. Be subjective. Step off the sidelines and get into the mud, the blood and beer and make us see what that life is like for Scottie, what choices he faces, and why we should give a hoot about him.

Dear Query Shark:

Fifteen-year-old Scottie Burns is hired as a ranch hand by a young, vibrant Theodore Roosevelt in Dakota Territory. He finds an idol in this dashing, charismatic hunter/rancher. In time TR finds in Scottie a good hunting companion and sounding board for his ideas.

In their time together (1883-1900) Teddy becomes more manipulative and “political,” Scottie matures -- and the nation grows too, becoming a world power.

Scottie shows us the unromantic side of cowboy life. We share his fascination with the era’s technological advances: the bicycle, automobile, earliest movies and the birth of press photography

He hears Teddy’s desire for U.S. expansion, and his ideas about racial traits. He also sees TR’s constant striving and realizes that TR has lost his reformer’s ideals. Instead, he has become self-
centered, stubborn and quick to practice opportunistic cruelty to his oldest allies if that advances his political career.

Tho he doubts the need for war with Spain, he joins Teddy ‘s Rough Riders invades cuba and comes under fire at San Juan Hill. Once mustered out Burns, now 30, has had his fill of Roosevelt’s ambition and quits. He moves to Buffalo to join a photography studio and
prospers during that city’s industrial boom. There he is hired to photograph the Pan American Exposition.

That incredible summer fair signaled America’s arrival as a new, muscular world power. Millions came that summer for their first look at the miraculous X-rays, infant incubators and experience the marvels of electrification, which would soon sweep across the nation.
They also saw the fruits of the nation’s expansionist push.

When President McKinley is shot, Vice President Roosevelt rushes to a deathbed inauguration.

The two men meet again, Roosevelt turns on his charm to ask Scottie to rejoin his entourage. Scottie refuse -- but the meeting sparks his memories of their years together.

You've mistaken a query letter for a rundown of the events in the book. I swear I'm going to make everyone pass a damn test drawn from the QueryShark archives before sending me queries for this blog.

How many times do I have to say this? One more at least I guess:
The purpose of a query letter is to incite interest in the book. It is NOT a rundown of the events, any more than a love letter is a rundown of the events you plan to woo her with.

Start with the hero. What conflict does he face? Not a war kind of conflict, but a choice kind of conflict. You've only alluded to it here: Scottie is conflicted when his hero isn't quite so heroic.

Now what choice must the hero make? What consequences of those choices bother him?

What I'm looking for in query letter is a sense of "what's amiss here, and what's going to happen because of it?"

Use that to structure your query. You don't have to tell the whole story; if you can tell the whole story in one page, I'm pretty sure I really don't want to read it!

Start again.
And read the damn archives.
I'm not in this for love yanno.