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.


none said...

I want one of those flags.

Lehcarjt said...

I'd like to know what the ancient artifact is. And I'm wondering why the author just doesn't state it rather than use the term 'ancient artifact.'

Mimzy said...

I second the flag desire. I need them in order to punish my enemies. Hmm... But if I get the flags then I'm also going to need enemies...

I'm pretty sure that The Knights Templar, and any religious conspiracy is pretty much dead in the public eye. I'd say that those still writing it are trying to milk the dead cash cow rather then trying to find the new pasture.

Trisha Leigh said...

Holy granola, I think I just realized what is wrong with my query. It makes my book sound like a DaVinci Code knockoff. Hmm. So how to write a query that involves historical treasure when the book has nothing to do with anything Knights Templar/Catholic church? Either way, thank you Query Shark. Been following your blog and knew I wasn't making any *dumb* mistakes. Figured it must be the content. Back to the drawing board. Or may just shove it under the bed and move on.

Adam Heine said...

Don't say "103,852 words". It won't get your query thrown out, but it's a possible amateur flag. Round it off -- 100,000 or 105,000.

Aimlesswriter said...

As soon as I got to Knights of the Templar I thought Divinci Code. They also used it in National Treasure, didn't they? I think its a red flag to say its been done before. However intriging the premise may be I'd leave that out for now. You don't want anyone to stop reading at that point.
Give me Jack, his discovery, motivation and his conflict. Tell it like it's the most exciting thing you know.

Marian Perera said...

One or two details are unnecessary - for instance, why mention Jack's friends? They're not doing anything in the query.

And at first I thought Jack would be chased for the ancient artifact, but now it looks as though there's "treasures associated with it". Both terms are vague and it's not clear what the artifact has to do with the treasure.

Unknown said...

Having written a thriller which could, at first glance, be mistaken for a DVC clone, I'm with SomedayAuthor. Can I simply lay out the reasons why it's not a DVC clone? On the other hand, going on at great length to explain what it isn't, referring extensively to some other product, is not exactly going to be a classic in advertising... Does the Shark have any tips regarding that generic issue, i.e., "how to make sure you're not seen as derivative"?

Adam Heine said...

You're right, Tamarind. Talking about what it isn't won't do any good in trying to sell it.

The general rule is show what it is. What makes your story unique?

_*rachel*_ said...

2 counts of passive voice in the stuff she didn't cross out. In this, it was really obvious. And it's Knights Templar, not Knight's Templars.

The advice here is solid--write another one or two before you look back at this one. Trust me, you'll see how much you've improved.

Janet said...

The word "ancient" certainly gets a work-out, doesn't it? And I agree that you should abandon the generic in favour of the specific: what kind of artifact is it? And what is so compelling about it that KGB guys turn up?

Ali Trotta said...

Reading this has given me something to think about. I have one completed novel that I've been querying. (I have a second novel, which I'm editing.) I've been trying to figure out the problem: is it the query or the novel? (Don't worry--I don't expect you to answer that.) Thank you for tweeting this blog entry; I think it's very helpful.

jjdebenedictis said...

*hugs* for the writer, because this has got to be a hard thing to hear.

But we've all been there. Keep writing.

_*rachel*_ said...

Why do the ex-KGB guys get all the good villainous jobs? You'd think no other country ever had a ruthless police/secret service. I'm just waiting for a ruthless ex-Basij assassin.

Mimzy--I like that image. Milking a dead cow would be... interesting.

Aimlesswriter said...

Try telling your story in three sentences. Like an elevator pitch. This reads like a synopsis. There is too much here. Excite me! Tell it like it's the most exciting thing you ever heard and you only have three minutes to tell me. What would you keep in, what would you lose? Give me quick facts.

Anonymous said...

That's interesting about the need to have three novels under the bed. I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, in which he researched what it takes to be successful in any field. A lot of it has to do with being born at the right time and place, but there's also a bit about 10,000 hours. That's the amount of practice needed by anyone to become a virtuoso of whatever it is they do. Ten thousand hours is roughly ten years.

ver: retspid--no respite for the weary, and no spelling ability, either.

Amber said...

I've also heard of writing 1,000,000 words. Luckily, I wrote four novels before I finally decided to make the fifth one my serious one.

Stephanie Barr said...

"Generally speaking you'll need three novels under the bed before you've got something ready to go."

Woot, I must be ready to go. I have four novels under the bed, two revised to a marketable draft, one (the first one) that may never see the light of day, and another one just finished.

How can all your sharkiness make me hopeful? Maybe I have a fever.

Stephanie Barr said...

Wait, the novel has to be serious? Oh, damn, I'm out.