Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Dear Query Shark,

'This too shall pass,' are the cruelest words in the English language, Petra Harrison thinks as she waits for the plane to take off.

With the death of her parents, she's been sent to Greenley's Academy, an exclusive boarding school a million miles away from her home in Smalltown, Idaho.

On the flight she makes a friend and catches the eye of handsome bad boy, Baird. She's begun to think boarding school might not be so bad when the plane crashes. The students are stranded on an island and as the days pass, without rescue, people begin to act less like spoiled rich kids and more like desperate survivors.

What does that mean? Are they becoming cannibals? Are they building rafts out of seat cushions? Are they trying to swim for Switzerland?

Baird thinks the flash of light that stalled the plane's engines was an electromagnetic pulse, the wave form of radiation from a high altitude nuclear explosion. As if that wasn't enough, they are in American territorial waters. Is the United States at War and with whom?

How do they know where they are if they crashed?

Scrabbling for food and water, with no rescue in sight, the survivors are forced to make desperate decisions. After the murder of the pilot, and a failed attempt at escape, the group splits as accusations and violence break out.

Petra sides with Baird, the geeks and other High School brainiacs. The Gems, an exclusive girl group and the High School President lead the rest of the survivors.

Can this be more stereotypical?

One of the most obvious things you've missed here is that in an emergency in real life, unlike television, many people rise above themselves. There's the example of the the Blitz in London. New York, and in fact all of the USA after 9/11. People rushed to HELP. Read any of the survivors of great disasters books and you'll see again and again that people did noble things, not selfish things.

Your book has to feel emotionally true for it to work.

The only thing certain now is that someone on the island has a deadly secret to keep and the world has changed.

This is actually a good line, and I'd bring it much farther UP in the query.

My edgy young adult novel, Surrounded by Blue,(book one in a proposed series of four) complete at 81,550 words, is a story of survival, mystery and geeky fanboys run amok.

Resist using adjectives to describe your own book.
fanboys? Where did that come from?

Thank you for your time and consideration.


The problem isn't your query letter; it's the book. Castaways on a desert island who fall into the same cliques I remember from sixth grade at Miss Heliotrope's School for Ill Mannered Ladies is not fresh and new. There's nothing here that turns our expectations on their ear. There's nothing that makes me wonder "what happens next."

Form rejection.

Dear Query Shark,

I hate the show Lost. Perhaps hate is too strong a word, I despise Lost. I loved the first season. A disparate group of passengers trapped on a mysterious island with Mathew Fox sounds like my version of heaven. But, by the second season, the show's endless mysteries and bizarre secrets began to wear thin.

You better hope that whoever is reading this has a clue what Lost is. I don't.

My YA novel, Surrounded by Blue, complete at 81,550 words, is Lost with an ending.

Here's a brief synopsis;

Start here because you start your query with what YOUR BOOK is about.

'This too shall pass,' are the cruelest words in the English language Petra Harrison thinks as she waits for the plane to take off.

With the death of her parents, she's been sent to Greenley's Academy, an exclusive boarding school a million miles away from her home in Smalltown, Idaho.

On the flight she makes a friend and catches the eye of handsome bad boy, Baird. She's begun to think boarding school might not be so bad when the plane crashes. The students are stranded on an island and as the days pass without rescue, people begin to act less like spoiled rich kids and more like desperate survivors.

What was the mysterious flash of light that happened seconds before the engines stopped? Why won't anyone's satellite phone work and most pressing of all, who killed the pilot?

So basically you're taking the premise of a TV show that everyone except me knows about, and writing a different ending.

You might want to try for something a little less derivative.

Would you be interested in reading my book? Thank you for your time and consideration.


You've got a very basic stranded on a desert island story. There's no plot. There's no conflict. There's no antagonist.

This is a form rejection.


Jinxie G said...

I've heard of the TV show, but if I had no desire to watch that, I'm probably not going to be interested in reading a book similar to it.

Rick Daley said...

I think LOST has a better story line. It's one of the few TV shows I actually watch. The creators fought the network (and won) and they are ending it next season so it can have a proper ending.

Alissa Grosso said...

I'm not an agent, but I will say that the first sentence of this query was enough to make me stop and read through to the end. I'm not a Lost fan, but that line made me curious.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Technically it's two shows. There's Lost, and then there's the (as in "already done") YA version of Lost (Flight29 down)that came out as a Saturday morning version with a bunch of kids being wrecked on a mysterious island, blah, blah, blah.

So, not only is this derivative of one show, but it's derivative that show's derivative, and that just makes me dizzy.

CKHB said...

It seems to me that even though the author claims to hate Lost, s/he in fact likes the CONCEPT of Lost, but is ultimately frustrated by its execution. In such a case, saying the author "hates" Lost seems risky... do you really want to alienate people who LOVE the concept of Lost, and would then perhaps LOVE the stranded-on-an-island concept of this book?

Other thoughts:

If hate is "too strong a word" then the replacement word should not be despise. These are synonyms and are equally powerful.

Make sure it's not too derivative of Lord of the Flies, either.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I suggest if the writer thinks this story is better than Lost then the query needs to spell out how it's got a more riveting story line and ending. Rhetorical questions at the end of the letter tell me nothing.

Teagen said...

Are most of the people on the island teens or adults? Because desperate adult survivors are typically going to act differently from desperate teen survivors (who are more likely to turn Lord of the Flies except probably worse).

S.D. said...

I wouldn't know what Lost was either if they didn't put the trailer for it on my favorite movie.

Anonymous said...

If the author hates/despises Lost, why did they write a book about basically the same thing? Or is the book's character saying she hates Lost? Confused.

SM Blooding said...

I'm a little confused as well as to why the author chose to write this book.

Well, wait. I could see why he might want to write that story...but! I'm confused as to why he would use a story/show that he hated to help sell it. That's just...not logical.

Rachael said...

You know, what if the agent they queried loved Lost? said...

I'm lost. I think I've seen half of one episode of that show. It didn't hook me.

On the other hand, my very first taste of Gray's Anatomy was about a young white girl engaged to be married, and an older black gentleman with a family, impaled with a pole, that when removed, will kill one of them. One will surely die, and they must choose which of them it will be. It was an impossible situation and I was riveted. Does your story hold any impossible situations?

Lehcarjt said...

While I thought the execution of the query could use a little reworking, I'd still argue that this would appeal to teens, especially the younger set (I read YA, and I would take a peek at it). To make the query clearer, cut all the Lost references to perhaps one line at the end and focus instead on the goals/obstacles of the group. The line about the flash on the plane and dead pilot are too vague too give us a sense of the direction of the plot.

And on another (possibly totally irrelevant) point, my husband's entire extended family lives in a small town in Idaho. We go back for family reunions and I spend the entire time feeling like I've been time-warped back to the eighties. So when I read your query, the real fun for me was imagining a female Napoleon Dynamite stranded with a bunch of rich NYC type kids. It would be hilarious! (We loved Napoleon Dynamite. We watched it as a family and spent the whole time laughing because it was so true!)

Kristin Laughtin said...

I'd cut all references to Lost. Not only does it make the book seem extremely derivative, it could turn off the agent and potential readers who love the show. (Lost is one of the highest-rated shows on TV; it has a lot of fans.)

Nitpicking: The lack of commas lead to awkwardness or ambiguity in several sentencees.

Unknown said...

You're taking a big chance with slamming Lost in the first paragraph. Whether you like the show or not, JJ Abrams is pretty well respected and even if the agent doesn't like Lost - maybe they like Star Trek or Fringe or Cloverfield and now they don't like YOU. For this to work, the agent would have to have seen Lost, and not like it. You're skipping over the group who haven't seen it, have seen it and like it, or who just don't like this sort of comparison.

Besides, you clearly haven't seen this season of Lost or you'd know it has an ending.

It just seems prideful and like a big misstep.

DeadlyAccurate said...

I love Lost, but that's not what would turn me off this query. What would turn me off was that you felt the need to express your hatred in the first paragraph. Starting with a negative is never a good idea.

My first thought was, "You obviously don't know enough about the show to compare your book to it, or you wouldn't say Lost doesn't have an ending." Also, you'd need more than just a mysterious island to make your book anything like the show. I won't be discourteous to others and post spoilers, but there are many, many things that make Lost unique that I don't see referenced in your query.

Finally, are satellite phones so common that referencing multiple phones makes sense? I would think they might have one sat phone at most on the whole plane.

JS said...

Sounds like Lost of the Flies to me.

My guess is that the author wanted to differentiate his/her book from Lost, but saying "I hate Lost and my book is like Lost only better!" is going to alienate the following three groups of agents: a) agents who have never seen Lost; b) agents who love Lost just the way it is; and c) agents who hate Lost and the only thing they could possibly hate worse is Lost with teenagers.

Rain Likely said...

William Golding called; he wants his plot back.

Mark L. Friedlander said...

2:47 AM and you're still critiquing queries? It must be true that sharks never stop swimming.

Jeannie said...

I do know the show Lost although I stopped watching it because it got too weird. Probably not a good idea to assume anyone else is watching it. Just tell your own story.
I'd like to know what the conflict is besides being stuck on this island? Perhaps do it from the main character's POV? (I don't mean first person) Just what her challenges, conflict and motavation is?

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one thinking about the legal ramifications of publishing what is essentially fanfiction? An alternative ending, sure, but still fanfiction. I thought that wasn't kosher?

none said...

CKHB (and others) hit what I was going to say: this isn't Lost, it's Lord of the Flies revisited.

If you're going to go up against a Nobel-Prize-winning author, well, you need more ammunition than this.

I saw the first season of Lost but then it was ripped away from public tv and never seen again. I did like what I saw. I don't like what I read here, mainly, I suspect, because US-style high school cliques are as meaningless to me as Lost is to the sharkster. That probably doesn't matter, though :).

There's a long tradition of marooned on desert island stories; it would be worth reading a few to see what's gone before. Also, I suspect that so many people survived the Lost crash because something somewhere wanted them to. There need to be good reasons why so many people survive--perhaps the plane ditched in the sea rather than crashing? Some research into air accidents might be a good place to start when revising the novel.

(word ver: nonfoods)

Madeline said...

After I read "electromagnetic pulse", "nuclear explosion" and "murder of the pilot" I just lost interest entirely because
those are all major aspects of Lost, so it's not a new or exciting idea.

I mean no offence, but this sounds like a fanfic of Lost to me. Author liked the idea of the island, the crash, the mystery, but wanted to replace the characters with highschool kids.

Amanda C. Davis said...

If you've got something that makes this better than Lord of the Flies, you'd better put it right in the beginning. The romance?

Tintin said...

Still sounds quite derivative to me, too. There's the Lord of the Flies aspect mixed with some of the country-goes-to-war-and-isolated-kids-don't-know business of Tomorrow When The War Began, plus all that Lost stuff. I'd be able to overlook that some if the characters didn't sound so generic (and didn't have the annoyingly typical YA-protagonists-must-have-trendyunusual-names thing going on--I mean, Baird and Petra? really?). But you have a handsome love interest and Plastics--sorry, Gems--and the outsider girl, and we're a gay guy and folk singer namesake away from Mean Girls. By your description, that is. Give us what makes this story different from all these others--and in specific, not just "less like spoiled rich kids and more like desperate survivors"--and hopefully we'll get a better idea of why we want to read this story in addition to Lord of the Flies. And Lost. And Mean Girls.

It sounds like an interesting idea hiding behind descriptions that don't do it justice; I know one of my little sisters would have eaten this up when she was in middle school.

Jinxie G said...

I have to agree with a few of the others. Now I'm thinking Lord of the Flies. I do like the new opening much better than the first negative one, but I have to agree with the Query Shark about the stereotypical behavior. People don't act like that in reality when faced with something this huge. That's just drama for television shows.

none said...

I would expect the pilot to know the plane's position before the crash, so I don't think it that unreasonable they should know they're still in US waters.

However, after two attempts at this query, I'm beginning to wonder if the book itself is flawed.

What happens?

_*rachel*_ said...

If you query an agent who likes Lost or hates Lord of the Flies, you're doomed.

WV: rante. How appropriate.

Danielle Filas said...

The grammar doctor within me takes issue with the syntax here: She's begun to think boarding school might not be so bad when the plane crashes. When I first read it, I thought the protagonist thinks that crashing the plane might help make boarding school better... the placement of the modifier "when the plane crashes" made me stumble a bit. If you end up reusing that sentence, I'd suggest reworking it a bit. (Maybe Just as she begins to think boarding school might not be so bad, the plane crashes. )

Anthony Souls said...

I agree that the book idea is too cliche. The author needs to be more original.

On that note, I don't think I agree with Query Shark about people rising about themselves during disasters. There are people that do come to the aide of others, but I believe the majority wouldn't. History is littered with equally horrible driven acts but large groups of people.

This blog is interesting, it's great for a writer to see what professionals think of their work. :)

Joshua said...

I don't understand the geographical aspect of the story. With a name like Greenley's Academy, it sounds like the school is probably in the northeastern United States. In other words, Petra is probably flying from somewhere like Boise to somewhere like Boston or Hartford/Springfield Airport. That flight path wouldn't take the plane over any major bodies of water other than the Great Lakes, and even during wartime it wouldn't take days to locate an airliner that crashed on an island in the Great Lakes.

Also, it's implausible that most of her boarding school class would be on the same plane with her. They would be coming in from various parts of the country, some within driving distance, others flying in from other cities.

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

Ha! You can't swim to Switzerland! I see what you did there.