Sunday, September 27, 2009


Dear Shark,

The Victims of Violent Crimes online forum provides support for those wanting to process through tragedy—but two of its members need more. Kimberly Caudill and Brad Ellis meet in an online forum that provides support for victims of violent crimes. They decide to quit being ‘victims’ and become perpetrators instead. They write a new treatment plan: partner up, hunt down the people responsible for their pain. And kill them.

Brad, a therapist in rural North Carolina, is enraged when two sisters he’s been counseling are brutalized by a meth dealer with a craving for kids. In Brazil, Kimmy’s six-month-old is ripped from her arms, murdered and discarded in the alley trash.

The two agree their first target will be the meth dealer. But, in pursuit of the pedophile, their thirst for revenge sweeps Kimmy and Brad into the broiling undertow of an inter-state gang war, fighting to right more wrongs and avenging abuses beyond their own.

Now the gangbangers are after them. And the meth dealer? He just found the most mouthwatering little boy.

That last sentence revolts me. I'm not sure I'd keep reading past it.

You've got a real problem here when the protagonists of the story become the perpetrators of crimes. How exactly are they going to keep our sympathy particularly when their "thirst for revenge" is turning them into vigilantes.

You've got more story here than you know what to do with.

How Kimmy gets to North Carolina, speaks enough English to navigate etc. is beyond the scope of a query letter. You might leave out that her story starts in Brazil. You don't need every detail in a query and the ones that raise more questions than they answer are good candidates for being left out.

MURDER THERAPY is a 100,000 word crime-thriller that draws upon my own decade of experience in therapy as a Qualified Professional in Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Wilderness Therapy Senior Instructor, and years of teaching Mixed Martial Arts. In addition to attending writing conferences and workshops, I also studied Creative Writing at Brigham Young University.

It's not really a thriller since there's no ticking clock and no issue beyond the personal stories of the protagonists. This is a crime novel most likely. If you kill Kimmy and Brad at the end, it's probably noir.

Form rejection.
Dear Query Shark,

In Wilkes County, North Carolina—birthplace of moonshine and NASCAR—a therapist, Brad Ellis, is rocked with grief when two of his dearest clients are brutalized by a pedophilic meth dealer.

When you mention moonshine and NASCAR in the first sentence, it's not unreasonable to expect the book is about those two things. When I continue reading, I expect to see it. When I don't, I'm confused. Confusion is NOT a good thing in a query letter.

You're using that to be descriptive, but you're describing the location, not the story.

"dearest clients" sounds very strange to me as well, particularly given Brad is a therapist. Are his clients children? And "rocked with grief" is a strange reaction to "brutalized." I'd expect "raging hot anger" --and in fact, given what follows, that's probably more accurate.

Kimberly Caudill is a new mother just arrived in Brazil. Before she’s even unpacked, her six-month-old is ripped from her arms by experienced kidnappers but needlessly murdered once the ransom is paid. In the aftermath of her loss Kimmy’s spiral of self-destruction is amplified by her ‘morning bowl of Zoloft’ and rampant promiscuity.

This is a mess of events, much like too many characters is character soup. The story doesn't start here (but I bet your novel does) The story starts here
------>Then she meets Brad at an online counseling forum. The two agree to augment their treatment by hunting down the people responsible for their tragedies. And kill them.

While Kimmy critiques her target’s fashion sense and Brad struggles with the hypocrisy of being a vigilante-therapist, this crack team botches their first assassination and runs up against a sheriff with his own agenda. He just happens to know someone, a rare individual with a unique skill set, who can help them if they agree to do this one thing—

whoa. Kimmy critiques her target's fashion sense? The fashion sense of a kidnapper who killed her child? This is lunacy. The tone and subject matter combination is so disjointed it makes me think of "Springtime for Hitler" or broccoli ice cream: two things that just do not go together.

And you're off in mish-mash again with "a rare individual" etc. What's the unique skill set and why on earth does he need these two?

From the streets of Sao Palo to the back roads of the rural South, MURDER THERAPY is a story of revenge, filled with violent gang lords, inbred trailer-trash, bikini-clad coeds, special ops soldiers, and crusty old bomb makers.

And we're done. This is where I stop reading. Are you trying to be sardonically humorous? If so, I missed it.

This 100,000 word thriller draws upon my own decade of experience in therapy as a Qualified Professional in Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Wilderness Therapy Senior Instructor, and years of teaching Mixed Martial Arts. In addition to attending writing conferences and workshops, I also studied Creative Writing at (redacted).

This isn't a thriller. I'm not sure what it is, but it's not a thriller. A thriller needs a ticking clock, and stakes larger than what happens to the characters (the difference between burning down one house and burning down a city for example)

Thank you for your consideration,

This is a mess right now. There's a lot of stuff, but no sense of what the book is about and certainly no sense of the book's tone.I have no sense of why I'd want to know any of these fact, I'm pretty sure I don't want to know them, and that's counterproductive for the purposes of a query.


Dear Query Shark,

I have an incomplete fantasy novel

here's where I stop reading and send a form rejection letter

that I'd like to know whether I should bother with. I know this is a bit unusual but you seem like a brutally honest person and that's what I need. I want to know whether I should continue with my idea.

Word count so far is 5,828 out of what I expect to be 60,000.

I know this is unusual but even if you don't critique it on your blog I would love even a tiny response with your honest opinion.
I understand if you don't reply.

SYNOPSIS: (redacted)
FIRST FIVE PAGES: (redacted)

You have to have a finished novel.
There are no exceptions to this.

If you send a query for an unfinished novel, don't say so. It's bad enough to actually do it, it's worse to say so. I don't read queries for unfinished novels.

The first step for writing a query letter is to finish the novel.

And the query shark blog is a critique of query letters, not synopses or first pages. That's why it's called QUERYShark, not WritingShark.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

#133-Revised 8x

Dear QueryShark:

Years ago, officer Gina Russo fired a shot in an act of self-defense, which caused and explosion, killing career criminal William Nicholas Mancuso., or so that's what she and fellow officers on the crime scene thought.

Now as an FBI agent, Gina receives a death threat and poems containing enigmatic clues, hinting at potential next moves, signed WNM. He know personal information about her, even about a past sour romance that still stings like hell. She doesn't like it...not one bit, especially not knowing the the bastard is.

The bureau assigns handsome, sharp, agent Joey Zicara as her partner. Now she's caught between a man, who wants her life, and a partner who wants her heart. With the intelligence of an experienced agent and the cautious heart of a woman scorned, Gina hopes to dodge both. But will she?

THE FINAL CLUE is a 100,000 word, character-driven suspense novel set in New York City.

This is better. You've connected the paragraphs, you've gotten the plot points down in the logical order.

You've pared out most of the stuff you don't need.  Now go back and pare out EVERYTHING you don't need.  Use the first paragraph as a guideline.

If you can take out a word and the sentence still works, leave it out. Say the sentences out loud one by one.

And if you're doing this on your query, you also need to do it on the novel.  One of the things I hear from other agents when we gab at conferences are complaints about really good queries followed by pages that go splat.  Make SURE what you've learned and applied to your query is also applied to your book.
Dear Query Shark,

A calculating mysterious man with a vengeance threatens F.B.I. agent Gina Russo’s life, and a swaggering agent is sent to shadow her every move. For the first time in Gina’s career, she’s thrown completely off guard.

"with a vengeance" means he's doing something with particular ferocity. I think you mean vendetta. Misusing words is a big red flag when I read queries.

You've got two unnamed characters and Gina in the first paragraph. That's too much. Focus on ONE. What's her problem?

Gina not only has to protect her life from a man she doesn’t know, she needs to guard her heart from Joey Zicara, the green-eyed agent with dimples who can melt any woman’s heart with a smile.  Gina would rather switch careers and work in a soup kitchen then accept his help.

This is all filigree and decoration. After you say she needs to guard her heart you don't need anything more about Joey Dimples. You don't have enough space in a query to wax poetic. Get to what matters: the plot, and why we should care about Gina at all.

Gina had blocked out the horrific crime scene that occurred seven years ago, when, during a shoot-out, an explosion erupted and a man was killed. She presumed the wrong man dead, and locked up his brother for life in prison. Suddenly, Gina receives rhyming poems containing clues that lead to the mysterious man, dubbed The Rhymester’s, next move.

I'm now completely lost. You don't connect this with anything that's happened before (in the query)

If Gina can cast aside her stubborn pride, trust Joey, and keep her heart from going into overdrive whenever he gets within twenty yards of her, she has a chance to discover the rhymester’s identity.  Before time runs out.  Before he kills her.  Should Gina and Joey need that damn final clue, the game is over.

I look forward to sharing THE FINAL CLUE, a romantic suspense novel. The 126,000 word character-driven story is set in N.Y.C.  

NYC or New York. No dots. Dots are for lesser burgs.

I was born and raised in New Jersey then moved to South Florida where I’ve been working in law enforcement for 23 years to present time. What inspired me to write this novel was for the simple fact that unfortunately things don’t always turn out the way we want them to.

What inspired you to write the novel is a swamp you don't want to wade into. Better to just leave it out. The perils outweigh any benefit.

This still doesn't work at all. It's got too many people, too many unconnected threads, and worst of all, we don't really care about Gina.

There's a schematic for figuring out the skeleton of a query on a previous post. Use it as the starting point.

Dear Query Shark,

Mr. WNM is presumed dead. That's bad news for Federal agent Gina Russo whom he holds responsible for his brother's lifetime incarceration. He plots down to the last letter containing THE FINAL CLUE to get his revenge.

The FBI is worried enough to assign an agent to assist and protect Gina after Mr. WNM contacts her. He makes it perfectly clear that he can get to her anytime he wants. He draws Gina into a game of chance. A very slim  chance at solving the hidden messages in the rhyming poems he sends to her home. It's the only way to discover his identity and her fate.

Gina's not too happy about having an agent in her home. What she's keeping from Agent Joey Zicara could get them killed, but he finds himself falling in love with her and unable to walk away even though he knows she's keeping secrets.

Thank you for your time and consideration, I look forward to sharing THE FINAL CLUE, a completed 120,000  word crime/romance novel.  There's no such thing as a crime/romance novel.

You're focused on the wrong thing here. In a novel of suspense (which is what this is), you want to focus on the person who is the target. The less said about the perpetrator the better. Take out everything that isn't Gina. Focus on what she sees and fears.

Also, re-read the archives. You're not making much forward progress here and sometimes you can get a breakthrough by seeing how other queriers have done so.

Dear QueryShark:

FBI Agent Gina Russo is contacted by a my man identifying himself as Mr. WNM that everyone thought was killed in an explosion. He challenges her to a game of chance by sending rhyming poems containing hidden messages to her home. It's her on (you mean one) and only chance at discovering his identity and her fate. The FBI is worried enough to assign her an agent for her protection. Accustomed to living alone, she's not happy about Joey Zicara staying with her, invading her space.

You're trying to get too much information in this paragraph. By cramming in all this stuff, you leave me with nothing but questions. Questions like: who cares if WMN was killed in an explosion? Why would an FBI agent feel threatened by rhyming poems for godsake. Death by Hallmark?

Step back. Think of what you actually need to tell us: Gina is getting threats. The FBI is worried enough to assign an agent. She's not too happy about having an agent in her home.

By leaving out everything else we get clearer sense of the plot.

A yellow rose accompanied with yet another poem arrives at Gina''s front door. Her fiery reaction and defiant refusal to share it changes everything. What she's keeping from Joey could get them killed, but he finds himself falling in love with her and unable to walk away even though he knows she's keeping secrets.

You don't need to tell us about the yellow rose and poem. In fact it's better if you don't On the face of it, yellow roses and poems aren't threatening.  In the context of the book, you can make us see that Gina regards it as a threat. In the short form query it's a nigh on impossible task.

Mr. WNM holds Gina responsible for his brothers (brother's) life sentence. He plots down to the last letter containing the final clue. The bank heist, his coup de grace, will be Gina's ultimate failure, which unfolds in this completed 120,000 word crime/romance novel titled THE FINAL CLUE.

And here is where you have a problem in the novel.  This doesn't make sense.  FBI agents don't solve every bank robbery. In fact I think they solve about half. I don't understand why not solving a bank robbery would be Gina's ultimate failure. 
And if Mr. WNM doesn't want her to solve this, wants it to be her ultimate failure, why is he taunting her ahead of time? Why doesn't he just pull it off, THEN taunt her?

Even novels of suspense need to make logical sense.

Working in law enforcement for 23 years and finding circumstances don't always work out the way we want them to inspired me to write this novel.

I don't care why you wrote the novel. If you're trying to mention that you work in law enforcement, just say that.

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

One of the key requirement of a suspense novel (which is what this is) is what's left unsaid, and unseen. Your query should reflect that. Your query should make me wonder what happens next. So far, it doesn't.

Dear Query Shark,

An explosion during a botched armed bank robbery - The robber is presumed dead - The striking beauty, Gina Russo, a federal agent that he blames for his brothers lifetime incarceration. His wrongful quest to ruin her life unfolds in this 120,000 word novel:

Ok, no. no no no. For starters unless "striking beauty" is critical to the plot, leave it out. Second no "he" unless it refers to someone you've already introduced, preferably by name. But mostly: this isn't a well-written paragraph. Your goal in a query, particularly the first paragraph is NOT to sound like a movie voice-over it's to entice your reader to want more.

When Gina can't get past the heartbreak of her life, she throws herself into her work. She becomes very successful at doing things on her terms in her own way; and prefers to work alone. Then a man with a deep muffled voice contacts her and makes it clear he's that he's been watching her and challenges her to solve rhyming clues for a shot at revealing his identity. A Federal agent, the handsome Joey Zicara, is assigned to assist and protect her. That changes everything.

You've set up a problem without stakes. Why does she care who the voice on the phone is? Why would she even listen to him past "hello?"

Joey's worked with some tough characters, but after working with Gina a few day, he longs for those other hard asses. Especially, after she gets her two best friends involved, and they plan a scheme behind his back. He's on to her, but makes a decision when he senses she's blocked out something significant that could shed light on the confusing rhymes. In spite of it all, he risks winning over the woman he's falling hard for and breaking the wafer-thin trust she has in him for his only chance to figure out who the man is and stop him from ruining his life.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

you're absolutely lost in words here, without telling me anything about what's at stake. Consider this: FBI Agent Gina Russo is getting threats from a man everyone thought was dead. The FBI is worried enough to assign her an agent for protection. What she hasn't told him might get them killed, but Agent Joey Zicara finds himself falling in love with Gina and unable to walk away even though he knows she's keeping secrets.

See the difference? Get to the nub of the plot. Leave out everything else.

Start over.
Dear Query Shark,

Some things in life never work out the way we want them to.

Agent Gina Russo can't get past the heartbreak of her life. She flips when a yellow rose is delivered to her home three years later reminding her of what happened.

Is this supposed to be the heroine? Cause she sounds like a high-strung poodle. Three years after some sort of heartbreak she "flips" at the delivery of a yellow rose? I'm sorry, but this is not someone I want to spend 200+ pages with. Either gives us a sense the heartbreak is pretty major, or something else that would warrant this kind of response.

William Nicolas Mancuso, whom is presumed dead, vows to tangle with Russo who he holds responsible for his younger brother's life sentence and to free himself of the unbearable guilt he lives with.

This is very very awkward writing. You can see that if you try to read that sentence out loud.

"Tangle with" seems pretty mild if he holds Agent Russo responsible for his younger brother's incarceration. "Revenge" seems more likely to be what's on his mind.

Agent Joey Zicara, is assigned to assist Russo and extremely attracted to her, can't come to terms with her stubbornness and lack of trust as they race to stop Mancuso.

Race to stop him from what? Sending roses?

And now you've got three characters introduced, with no real sense of who they are, just their starting positions in the plot.

Agent Russo is pissed off with Mancuso'f ridiculous game.

What game?

Mancuso is ecstatic he's causing chaos in life.

I thought he wanted to tangle with Russo?

Agent Zicara is determined to discover who Mancuso is and figure out the the hell Russo's problem is as he tries to win her over.

Why the hell would he want to win her over? She doesn't seem all that enticing from here.    You'll want a protagonist with some strength here.

THE FINAL CLUE is a 130, 000 word quirky crime novel. Filled with action, twists and turns, combined with humor and leaves one wondering what the hell went wrong.

This is telling not showing. SHOW me this in your writing, don't tell me cause unless I read it, I don't believe it.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to share the entire manuscript with you at your request.

This is better than the first to tries in that it's shorter.
It still doesn't work because it fails to entice me to read on. You tell me it's funny, but there's not a drop of humor here to show me that's true. You tell me it's got twists and turns but you don't show me a single one.

Start over.

Dear QueryShark:

For Nick Mancini time stopped when he saw the terrified look on his younger brother Anthony's face as Agent Russo apprehended him during a botched armed bank robbery. Nick couldn't shake the gut wrenching pain deep inside him and his feelings of remorse and guilt because he was unable to protect his brother. He vowed to avenge the life sentence his brother received.

Did you get a barrel of adjectives for Christmas? Words don't have expiration dates; you don't need to use them or lose them.

I'd stop reading right here because when I see this kind of over-writing in a query, I know I'll see it in the novel.

From a structural point of view, you have three characters introduced in one sentence. That hardly ever works, and now isn't one of the few times it does.

Years later Mancini contacts Agent Russo and identifies himself as her worse nightmare and tips her off about a crime he is about to commit to set her up. He makes it clear that he can see her through her apartment window and has been watching her. She becomes determined to discover who the caller is and why she is being targeted.

If I hadn't stopped reading before, I would now. It's a jumble of plot lines and confusing as hell. Simplify.

A Special Agent is assigned to assist and protect Agent Russo in her home causing her anxiety level to rise as she tries to fight the unwanted feelings growing toward the Special Agent. Because she can't let go of the devastating feelings she still has since her ex-fiance' broke her heart, she begins to not only doubt her feelings toward the Special Agent, she also begins to second guess her professionalism as an FBI Agent.

What you are describing as a crime novel has now sunk into some sort of emo-women's fiction about self-esteem. 

While it is true that many crime novels do feature characters who doubt themselves for all sorts of reasons, it's not a selling point for the novel.  Focus on plot and action; the enticing parts of the book.

THE FINAL CLUE is a 140,00 debut word crime novel set in New York City, one of possible series.

Thank you for your time and consideration. l look forward to sharing this completed novel with you.


Start over. Use the formula that I've yapped about endlessly. It's in the archives.
This is a form rejection.

Dear Query Shark,

I am seeking representation for my 140,000 word Crime Novel set in New York City, one of a possible series. Title: THE FINAL CLUE.

Don't start with this. I know you're seeking an agent because you've sent me the query. Don't start with the word count particularly since it's so high. When you've got troublesome word count (too high/too low) at least give yourself a chance and put it last. If I'm hooked on the story, I"m much more likely to overlook word count problems.
Leave out "possible series" or put it last.

Crime Novel is not capitalized.

Start here ----->William Nicholas Mancuso aka Nick Mancini, (why does it matter than he has an aka?) who is presumed dead after an explosion during a botched armed bank robbery, is determined to avenge his younger brother Anthony's life sentence. Agent Gina Russo is responsible for Anthony's arrest. Nick patiently tracks her for seven years, and then decides the time has come to execute his long awaited plan and let the games begin.

"Let the games begin" begs the question of why Nick doesn't just kill her. And why does it take seven years to track her?

When an unknown caller states his intentions (what intentions) to Agent Gina Russo and informs her that he can see her through her apartment window on the twenty-third floor, she is determined to figure out who he is and why she is being targeted.

My guess is the unknown caller is Nick. Just say so.

She wants to stop him before he executes his plan as he makes the game personal, mentally breaking her down.

This doesn't make sense. If you end the sentence at plan, you'd be better off.

And of course she wants to stop him. That seems pretty obvious.

Based on the caller's initial conversation, a Special Agent is assigned to assist and protect Agent Russo her in her home which unsettles her due to her own on going deep emotional struggle.

Again, you're better off with shorter sentences: A Special Agent is assigned to protect her in her apartment.  She's unsettled by this because (and then why)

And what's this deep emotional struggle? It doesn't actually tell me anything unless you say what the struggle is about. "She's struggling" is much less informative than "she's fighting off a lion that escaped from the zoo."

I was born and raised in New Jersey and have resided in South Florida for the past twenty-nine years. Working in Law Enforcement for 22 years to the present time has inspired me to write this novel considering the fact that not everything turn out the way we want or expect them to.

Where you were born and where you live doesn't matter (unless it's outer space.) Your inspiration to write the novel doesn't matter either. The fact you work in law enforcement can be perceived as a disadvantage.  People who work in law enforcement often suffer from over-accuracy. By that I mean they let accuracy get in the way of a good story.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to an opportunity to share the entire manuscript with you soon.


There's no story here. It's just the set up. Bad guy is after the good guy. We have no sense of the characters other than one of them is an agent with emotional problems. Why should we care about any of them?

This is a form rejection.

Dear Query Shark

I am seeking representation for my first novel entitled: “THE FINAL CLUE.” This 160,000, word crime novel is set in New York City and is the first of a possible series.

I've stopped reading right here. 160,000 words is too long. I don't care if it's more beautifully written than James Lee Burke, the ugly truth is I can't sell a long ass novel right now. Pare it down to 120,000 and better yet, under 100,000 words.
Agent Gina Russo received a phone call 5:15 am from a man who identified himself as Mr.WNM as in her worst night-mare, claiming he could see her in the window 23 stories up, through the heavily falling snow and informed her of his plans to rob millions from the National Vault institute.

This is supposed to set the suspense. It doesn't. You need to start with something that sounds real. Calling someone to inform them you're going to rob a bank isn't. Think about it. Set up the situation first, then you add the twist that she finds out he's going to rob the bank.

Seven years earlier, the caller, William Nicholas Mancuso aka Nick Mancini, was presumed dead after then Officer Russo fired her gun striking a barrel filled with explosives during a botched armed bank robbery. His world was torn apart when she apprehended his brother Anthony at the crime scene for which he now serves a life sentence. He vowed to avenge his brother. He observed her for seven years then decides the time has come, let the games begin.

What? This doesn't make any actual sense. You've got too many specifics and too many names. What you've got in so many (more!) words is: Nick Mancini vows revenge after Russo arrested his brother. Simplify.

Who the hell is the Commander? You're bogged down in details. Answer three simple questions: who's the protagonist; what choice does she face; what are the consequences of the choice. That's ALL you need. You've confused the reader here with too much detail.

I have worked in law enforcement over 21 years and although I am not an officer of the law, I have gained an enormous amount of knowledge throughout the years.

You don't need to distinguish between a position as a sworn officer or a civilian job.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to an opportunity to share the entire manuscript with you upon request.

This is a form rejection based on both word count and utter confusion.



THE DEVIL ORDERS TAKEOUT is a romp, the tragicomic story of New York attorney Grayson Boldt. After the violent death of his wife and older son, he New York attorney Grayson Boldt strikes a deal with a mob boss to take revenge on the killer and protect his younger son.

Sliding deeper into the mobster's shady business, Grayson draws a the line at sending an innocent man to prison. For punishment the mob boss plans to kill Grayson's only surviving son himself.

And the mob boss sounds psychotic. Psychotics aren't all that interesting because they're one-dimensioinal

Desperate, Grayson tells him the boy is a gifted golfer who could win him money. The mobster, a notorious sports better with a secret motive, agrees to a reprieve providing the boy wins the Masters before his twenty-first birthday. Grayson uses his wealth and cunning to keep his prodigy son focused on golf, while the mob boss wagers a fortune against him.

You've got a jarring mix of tone here. It's also clear from your use of "romp" and "tragicomic" that you're not sure what it is either. Threatening to kill someone's son isn't a romp unless it's some sort of weird Princess Bride-like send up. I don't get the sense that's what you're doing.

I have studied creative writing for fifteen years and used my storytelling experience garnered as a Hollywood film editor and script doctor to write this first of a series novel.

Thank you for your time, and I hope to hear from you.


Still a form rejection.
But I still like the title.


THE DEVIL ORDERS TAKEOUT is a 107,000 word tragicomic novel with a unique voice, driving plot, resolute women, and offbeat/quirky characters that will long be remembered.

This is telling, not showing. It's the sign of weak writing in a novel; it's worse in a query.

New York attorney Grayson Boldt, who after the violent death of his wife and older son, strikes a deal with a mob boss to take revenge on the killer and protect his younger son. Sliding deeper into the mobster's shady business, Grayson crosses him and must pay with his remaining son’s life unless the boy wins the Masters golf tournament before his twenty-first birthday. Grayson uses his wealth and cunning to keep his son focused on golf but learns the mob boss is wagering his entire fortune on the son losing the fateful tournament.

I've stopped reading right here because I just don't believe any of this could happen. I've believed a lot of impossible things (Jeff Somers entire post apocalyptic New York just for starters, and pretty much all of Alice in Wonderland) but this just doesn't make sense to me.

Why on earth would anyone risk his surviving son's life by hoping he'll win the Masters? This doesn't make emotional sense to me.

And the mob boss wagering an entire fortune? On a golf game? I don't believe that either.

You can create amazing worlds and situations but you have to construct it in a way that the reader will believe it. This doesn't do that for me.

I have studied creative writing for fifteen years and used my storytelling experience garnered as a Hollywood film editor and script doctor to write this first of a series novel.

Thank you for your time, and I hope to hear from you.

Form rejection.
I like the title.


Dear Query Shark:

Here is a story about aging people in the country.

(pages redacted)

This is an automatic form rejection. I used to offer up what I thought was practical, easy to follow advice: you have to write an actual query letter here.

Sadly, I'd get pretty much everything but an actual query in reply.

And I'm seeing more of this kind of query.

It doesn't work. You have to write a query. I'm not going to just read your first five pages. It's not an efficient use of a scarce resource in high demand: my reading time.

Just so you know: a query MUST contain:
1. Who is the protagonist?
2. What choice does s/he face?
3. What are the consequences of the choice?

Without that information you cannot convey what is enticing about reading the book.
The goal of a query is to entice your reader, me, to read the pages.

And if I miss the next Great American Novel by rejecting this unread, I'm ok with that.

Form rejection.

Friday, September 4, 2009



Dear Query Shark:

Jack Talbot, ex Navy SEAL, is a successful New York Attorney, devoted husband and grandfather, as well as an avid diver. While on vacation in Florida, Jack goes diving with Sam, an old friend/client, who owns a salvage vessel called “The Scavenger”. One of Sam’s employees recently discovered a mysterious amulet consisting of twelve precious gems along with a strange shipwreck with similar mysterious markings off the Florida Keys.

You've taken an entire paragraph, pretty much the only words on my screen if you send this via email, to say one thing: Someone discovered an amulet. You don't even mention who.

This does not bode well.

When Jack helps Sam and his crew investigate the wreck further, they discover a strange box with the same mysterious markings. Within the box is a secret compartment hiding a parchment written in Ancient Hebrew containing an old prophetic clue connected with the lost treasures of King Solomon’s Temple.

Yawn. Mysterious treasure map. What you're missing here is that when the trope is old (and this one is ancient) it's the characters who must be compelling. If the plot is as utterly predictable as this one is, you've got to give us a reason to care about the people. So far you haven't done this.

Jack’s search leads him on a global adventure from the seas off the Florida Keys, across the Atlantic, and finally to Israel where an ancient Jewish-Roman settlement is discovered overlooking Old Jerusalem and the site of the Ancient Temple.

Wow, I'm stunned that map in Hebrew leads him to Jerusalem. STUNNED I tell ya. Ok, that's being snotty, but honest to godiva, this kind of obvious brings out that kind of response.

A private cartel intent on uncovering and stealing ancient artifacts, as well as valuable gems and treasures, learns of the amulet’s discovery when an unscrupulous lab employee overhears one of Sam’s men discussing the find at the CMRC (Caribbean Marine Research Center) while attempting to discover its origin and significance.

At least it's not an evil twin or a Nazi. But still, this is just boring.

The cartel dispatches one of their top agents, a Russian ex KGB assassin, to recover the amulet and the treasure they believe will be associated with it. Jack’s five year old granddaughter is captured by the assassin and a cat and mouse game unravels as Jack tries to outwit the assassin, recover the treasure, and rescue his granddaughter with the help of his friends and an ancient secret Hebrew society intent on protecting the treasures of the old Jewish Temple.

I don't understand why you'd send an assassin on a jewel stealing job, but maybe that's cause I love Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch A Thief. And why does the assassin kidnap the kid? Nothing good comes with a five year old.

STONES OF FIRE, taken from the twelve precious gems signifying the twelve tribes of Israel and embedded in the breastplate worn by the Jewish High Priest in the days of the Temple, is complete at 105,000 words.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Remember when I told you to write another novel and let this one have a good snooze under the bed? I wasn't kidding.

There is nothing enticing here. You've cleaned up the form, but the content is formulaic and frankly boring. The problem isn't the query. It's the novel.

Form rejection.

Dear Query Shark:

My name is (redacted) and I have just completed my first novel. I would be honored to have you review it and act as literary agent on my behalf. It is called “Stones of Fire”.

Leave all this out. It's useless.

The main character is Jack Talbot, a New York attorney, who, while on vacation in Florida, goes diving with an old friend who owns a salvage vessel called “The Scavenger”. An ancient artifact is discovered leading Jack and his friends on an adventure in the seas off the Florida Keys, across the Atlantic, and finally to Israel.

So, they discover it....then what? It's not like they hoist a flag and say "we found an ancient artifact, bring on the bad guys." There has to be a reason that the bad guys get involved. What is it?

Along the way Jack is chased by a Russian ex-KGB assassin and a private cartel intent on recovering the ancient artifact and the treasures associated with it.

The trail leads Jack to the Knight’s Templars and an ancient Hebrew society intent on protecting and recovering the lost treasures of the ancient Jewish Temple. The novel consists of is 103,852 words and will appeal to readers interested in historical thrillers.

This isn't a historical thriller. Historical means it takes place at least 100 years ago (give or take). What you have here is what we call a DaVinci Code knock-off thriller. As you might imagine that is not a term of endearment. I encourage you strongly to find something fresh and new to entice the bad guys (ie agents). Ancient artifacts, Knights Templar really doesn't do that.

I am currently a licensed attorney in New York State, having practiced law for thirty years. I was previously a staff attorney for a Legal Aid Society as well as an Assistant District Attorney. Before entering private practice and running my own firm I was the Chief Assistant District Attorney in the Orange County District Attorney's Office for over five years. Although I have not been previously published, I have been an extremely successful litigator and have used my writing skills extensively throughout my legal career, in both written applications to the Court as well as in preparing trial questions and summation arguments to juries.

None of this matters at all.

I would like to embark on a career as a novelist and believe that my first novel has a market waiting to read it. Would it be possible to send a copy of the manuscript, or at least some sample chapters, to you for your review?

Thank you for considering this proposal.

This is a query letter, not a proposal. Proposal is a term reserved for non-fiction. One of those industry specific usages that writers don't know at first.

Very truly yours,

You're querying too soon. Write another novel, get into a brutal critique group, and find YOUR voice, and story. You're over writing, and under imagining. This is not a character flaw. It's simply a sign that you're making your first foray into writing novels. Keep at it. Generally speaking you'll need three novels under the bed before you've got something ready to go. There are exceptions to that, but this isn't one of them.


Dear Query Shark,
Ambitious Senator Carinna knows something must be done: erratic young Caligula Caesar, the new Emperor, needs a companion and confidant. Carinna’s older son, groomed for the job, is dead – leaving only bad-boy Marcus, who has just returned from the German frontier trailing minor clouds of glory. And a hostage.

Marcus is persuaded that honor requires him to atone for his brother’s treason. But after painfully earning the Emperor’s trust, he is horrified to learn that Caligula himself uttered the statement for which Marcus’s brother took responsibility – and that the scheme to switch the blame was their father’s, devised to ensure the survival of the youthful Caligula, then heir apparent.

Aurima, the stubborn and bitter German hostage with whom Marcus has fallen in love, sneers at him for not seeking vengeance and tries to kill Caligula herself. Unless Marcus turns her in, the enraged Caligula vows to punish him by demanding the suicide of his dishonored father. In the end, Marcus achieves what he desired – to prove himself a better man than his father – but realizes that in protecting Rome from Caligula, he can rely on no one but himself.

ROMA AMOR, 160,000 words, is the richly plotted product of many years of research and revision. I appreciate your consideration, Ms. Shark, and will be glad to send a full or partial ms. if you’re interested.

This is a damn good revision.

The word count is still a problem.

Go through it one more time with Cntrl-F (find) for "that" Take out every single "that" you don't need.

Then check for was -ing verb forms. Replace with verb-ed forms. (was washing to washed)

Then just read it line by line and take out every single word that doesn't have to be there.

My bet: you'll chop 5000 words off this.

When you do, let me know. I'll read it.


Dear Query Shark,

Marcus Carinna, a young Roman aristocrat, was a womanizing scoundrel until his brother’s suicide drove him to become an officer in a Danube legion. There, as a convert to the Sun God Mithras, he dedicated himself to upholding truth and order. Now his father, a powerful Senator, wants him to take his brother’s place as a companion of the inexperienced new Princeps of Rome: Caligula Caesar.

You've introduced four characters in one paragraph. This isn't even the start of the story. You've saved that for paragraph 3.

In ROMA AMOR, my 190,000-word novel, that decision will force Marcus into a wrenching choice between “Amor” (love) and “Roma” (duty) – the words every Roman legionary used to carve on opposite sides of his battle knife.

Here's where I stop reading and say "form rejection." 190,000 words. It simply cannot be done. Not right now anyway. And before you start hurling examples of The Thorn Birds, all of James Clavell, and Gone With the Wind at me (books I read and loved) let me just say this: I'm not sure I could sell those books, at that length, today. I'm not guessing at this. I know for a stone cold fact that wonderful novels over 120,000 words get glowing rejection letters. Glowing. REJECTION. Frankly I'm not in this for rejection letters glowing or otherwise. I'm in it for sales.

Though it galls him to obey his father, Marcus feels that family honor requires him to make amends for his brother’s treasonous behavior, which endangered the young Caligula. While struggling to advise the increasingly unstable Princeps, he will confront personal betrayal, attempted murder, and a disastrous attraction to an enemy’s captured daughter before Caligula rewards his loyalty with the truth about his brother’s death.

This is actually the interesting part. Leave out all those generalities. Get to the next paragraph which also has interesting stuff.

Too late, Marcus discovers why Caligula told him when they met, “The point, O Theseus, is not to learn what waits at the heart of the maze. The point is to escape alive.” Reeling from what he has learned, he must choose between his reckless love for the German hostage Aurima and his duty to everything he holds sacred.

Be specific. What did he learn? And by duty to everything he holds sacred do you mean the duty to family mentioned above?

Because of the importance of Caligula’s reign in Rome’s transition from republic to empire, it’s been a passion of mine for years. A professional copywriter by trade, I co-authored four nonfiction books on business and finance while writing ROMA AMOR, my first novel. I’ve amassed scores of reference books and walked in my characters’ footsteps, from the Palatine Hill to the banks of the Danube.
None of this matters a whit.

ROMA AMOR is envisioned as the first book in a series that takes readers from the beginning of Caligula’s principate through his assassination, the accession of his uncle Claudius (of I, CLAUDIUS fame), poisonings and conspiracies, and the rise of Nero. It's told in the first person, allowing readers to share one man's experience of this treacherous and turbulent time.
This is telling not showing.

A synopsis of the plot follows. If you’re interested, Ms. Shark, I’d be pleased to send you a partial or complete manuscript.

Of course you would. You don't need to say so.

Thanks for considering ROMA AMOR. I look forward to hearing from you.


Form rejection due to word count.