Monday, January 11, 2010


Dear Query Shark:

Elizabeth will be convicted of sedition and Transported. Jocelyn, exposed for the spy she is. Meredith hanged for piracy.

Is there a reason the t in transported is capitalized?

That's what will happen to her sisters should Alicia Atherean choose to ignore the instructions outlined in a letter penned by the most influential persons in London.

I'm a big fan of starting where the story starts. Here it seems to be: If Alicia Atherean ignores the instructions of (insert blackguard's name) then (list all that stuff from the first paragraph).

Now here's where your query falls apart. The very next sentence should be: If she DOES follow instructions then (equally, possibly even more, dastardly event) will happen.

The juxtaposition gives you a sense of the stakes and tension. Everything you have right now is just blathery set up.

Then you say what the instructions are and they should be heinous.

The letter details the reason why the four of them have been threatened. A conspiracy exists. Should it come to fruition, the result will strip India of its sovereignty and shift the balance of power within the British Empire away from the Crown and Parliament.

blah blah blah

Her blackmailers have decided that Alicia and her sisters are uniquely situated to prevent that from happening as those orchestrating the conspiracy want her and her sisters dead.

more blah

They will be bait, but not forsaken. Persons of exceptional skills and powerful motivations have been dispatched to assist each of them.

more of same

One such person, Michael Sayre, a Lieutenant with allegiences to Whitehall and the Guards, sits in front of her now and awaits her answer.

Is he the blackguard? I just want to know who the bad guy is.

I'm increasingly annoyed by queries that clearly haven't run a simple spell czech. 

She'll go. She'll do what she has to do. But not just because of the threats levied against her sisters.

The true incentive to ensure her cooperation is the promise detailed in the third paragraph of that letter.

We're way too far in to the query for this little piece of news. The stakes must be earlier.

Her blackmailers will make the outstanding warrant for her arrest, issued nearly ten years ago for murder, disappear.

I hope she murdered someone truly dastardly or you're having us root for a murderer. Not that I don't of course-- all things being equal-- but you're writing for a more genteel audience than the bloodthirsty denizens of The Reef.

Valkyrie Park: A Lady’s Gamble is the first in a four-part series of historical adventure novels set during Napoleon’s ‘Hundred Days’. It follows Lady Alicia Atherean from her Hell in Calcutta to a secret rendezvous in London. At 120,000 words, the novel is complete. The next three books, detailing the adventures of Their Ladyships Elizabeth McMorrow-Catherwood, Jocelyn Rosemonte, and Meredith Rhethage, are in various stages of completion. Thorough outlines for each book are available.

oh nooo. No no no. Time to break the bad news that this is a million word saga is later. Much later. Like---if asked in a hopeful tone "is there more."

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.


This still isn't sharp and focused enough.  Get rid of all the blather. Set up the stakes of the book. That's all we really need to know. All you have to do is entice me to read on. 

Dear Query Shark,

Winter, 1815: Four women – each made sisters by childhood tragedies – are forced, by threat of the hangman’s noose, to commit treason against the Crown for the sake of the Crown.

A devious plan to seize total control of India, and assassinate the Prince Regent should the need arise, is discovered. All available clues point to persons operating within the East India Trading Company. The vicious scheme would have succeeded more than twenty years ago had not a certain French upstart embroiled all of Europe in war.

In an up-stairs room at Almacks, a desperate countermeasure is devised. 

You've set the scene with the first two paragraphs. NOW you have to get specific: who are the players and what's at stake.

If a warmonger caused these men to halt their machinations the first time, then – God, forgive them – he shall be re-released onto the world once more. Only then, while victories are achieved with cannon, shot and blood, will this group of men within the East India Trading Company be vulnerable to investigation.

I absolutely do not understand what you're trying to say here. Who is them? The four women release Napoleon from Elba? 

The stakes are high. If these men succeed, there will be no way to remove them from their places of power and persuasion. Should these four women – a Privateer, a Calcutta madam, a spy in King Louis court and a Midland raider – win the day, then the ruling seat of the British Empire remains in London and they get to keep their heads.

I just don't have a sense of what's going on here. You've got to be very specific about what happens.

The clock is ticking. The challenge to Bonaparte’s rampage commenced the moment Napoleon sailed from St. Elba. The moment the Frenchman concedes defeat is the same moment in which these men will execute the final steps in their plan.

I'm not sure what the connection is between seizing control of India and anything going on in Europe. You said there is one, but not what it is. Or why it's important.

At 125,000 words, Valkyrie Park is a female-centric novel steeped in historical fact and rich adventure set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s ‘Hundred Days’.

You're telling me this is a female-centric novel but only talking about men. I know you're trying to avoid character soup, but this isn't the way to do it.

Thank you very much for your time and your consideration.

This doesn't work yet.

Dear QueryShark:

VALKYRIE PARK: A Lady's Gamble

Don't start with the title.

Alicia Atherean cannot step foot in London , or any other town in Britain . For those who commit murder, even if it was ten years ago and the only means to prevent the sale of her younger sister’s virginity, there is no justification, has no Statute of Limitation, no appeal. Especially when there was – is – a witness.

Your first sentence is good. Then you switch into a much more distant, narrative voice. "For those" is the culprit. And there IS a justification; you just told us what it is.

Now a Calcutta madam, Alicia – Mesteren as she is now called – operates her establishment Odin’s Fare as one of India ’s premier hells. Only her adopted grandfather, a sitting Board member for the East India Trading Company, knows that Lady Atherean and Mesteren is the same person.

Ok, but, where does the story start? So far I know she can't go back to London, and she's in India. This isn't an actual plot.

She’s used to doing what she has to do in order to keep her employees safe and her past a secret. That’s why, when she finds out about a break-in at her grandfather’s house and hears reports of two different men quietly interrogating her staff, she issues orders to have the perceived perpetrators brought to her.

Still no plot. And by plot I mean a reason to care about what happens, a reason to read on. So far this is just description. It's not BAD description but it's also not enticing description.

Graeson Allerton, a member of the Calvary Guards, can’t leave London just because the esteemed and highly influential Lady Constance Hawthenford deems it. Jonathan Ward, a former Whitehall ‘Finder’ and life-long friend of Allerton, is selected as a comparable replacement. Ward is talented, tenacious, and doesn’t share a past with the woman he’s being sent to find.

and we're done. You've got too many characters here and nothing enticing. There's NO connection with Alica. You assume "the woman he's being sent to find" will convey "Alicia" but it does NOT. In short form writing i.e. query letters you don't have enough time or space to call characters anything but their names OR their primary relationship to the main character.

Jonathan notes everything Gray tells him about Alicia: the little he knows of the status of her sisters, the Hawthenford connection, and the last time Gray actually saw Alicia – when she shot a man at point-blank range. Jonathan also takes possession of a very important letter, a letter that Jonathan cannot fail to hand-deliver to Alicia.

This is over written. Too much detail, but not enough sense of what's at stake here.

Jonathan is primed for action. Increasingly restless since Bonaparte arrived on St. Elba, hanging about Whites and propping up walls at balls and soirees are habits he doesn’t enjoy fostering. He’s looking forward to committing his considerable talents to the task of locating a long lost Lady by the deadline Hawthenford imposed.

For Jonathan, the trick to finding someone has everything to do with making them wanting to find you more than you want to find them.

What four women? I know who you mean from the previous edition of the query but in this query I don't.

Also, focus on ONE main character, and her plotline. You can say it's a "sweeping saga" of some sort to let me know there are lots of people, but much like if you were querying for GONE WITH THE WIND you'd mention only Scarlett and Rhett; maybe Ashley, and that's it.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

This is too jumbled and unenticing to catch my eye yet. I might read a page or two of the novel cause we're all looking for good historicals, but I'm pretty sure this is a form rejection.

Dear Query Shark,

November, 1814: Four women are blackmailed with deportation, incarceration, exposure and treason into rescuing the sovereignty of a nation and the life of the Prince Regent.

Rescuing the sovereignty of a nation? What the heck does that mean? And how is someone blackmailed with deportation? Or Incarceration? Or exposure? Or treason? These sentences literally do not make sense to me. This is a VERY bad sign in a query. Don't be afraid of plain writing. It's harder to do than it looks. Simple direct sentences are the bones of the query. Start with them.

Alicia: living in exile for murder, she has become Mesteren, a successful Madam in India.

Meredith: wilful and fearless, more pirate than privateer, she’s well-aware that someone within the Admiralty wants her head in a noose.

Jocelyn: a Whitehall spy stationed in Paris and trapped between those aligned with King Louis, those faithful to Bonaparte, and those intent on achieving power of their own.

Elizabeth: resentful of the trappings associated with a title she never asked for, she finds satisfaction in raiding the countryside and smuggling contraband with her band of marauders.

This is a list of characters who have some sort of nefarious past. It doesn't tell me a darn thing about what happens in the book.

These four women – aristocrats by birth, criminals by choice, and sisters by circumstance - possess the talents and tools to accomplish what men of power and stature cannot: to thwart a conspiracy devised by a group of men within the East India Trading Company to make their boardroom the true seat of the British Empire.

Ok, so here you finally get to the plot. And again, you're lost in your phrases. What exactly does the East India Trading Company intend to do? Move Buckingham Palace to Bombay? Kidnap the King? Kidnap the Queen and marry her off?

Valkyrie Park is an 85,000 word historical romance novel in the rich tradition of Diana Gabaldon and Stephanie Laurens.. Though I envision it as the first part of a four-part series, Valkyrie Park easily stands alone.

This paragraph made me laugh out loud. "Rich tradition" of Diana Gabaldon is a worthy goal, but I know you haven't come close even though I've not read a single word. This is how I know: 85,000 words.

If you look up the text stats on Amazon for OUTLANDER, Diana Gabaldon's amazing first novel you'll find it's closer to 300K. VOYAGER is 383K.

Even Stephanie Laurens' mass market paperbacks run 125K or so.

There's a reason for that: you need to build a world and furnish it. You can do it in 85K words. You can't do it well.

Also Valkyrie is from Norse mythology. It feels odd to have a book about the British Empire circa 1804 referencing Norse mythology, but that's probably just the Puritan in me.

Thank you very much for your time and for allowing me to present this query for your consideration.


This is not compelling or enticing. I don't read enough of the category to judge if it's fresh or new, but my guess is some of the commenters will shed some light there.

Form rejection.


Nathan Carriker said...

Janet, please make my year! Tell me why I'm killing myself to get my 160K-word novel DOWN to 80-100K if you're telling folks that you can't build a world in 85K. Everyone's telling me I can't pitch a debut novel bigger than 100K. Now, can I, or not?!

The Daring Novelist said...

Nate, I can't speak for Janet, but I think she meant that you can't create a rich and historical or fantasy world in so short a space. There are certainly lots of good short books out there too - but they have a different subject and style.

Taymalin said...

TDN: you _can_, but it wouldn't be in the "rich" tradition of the two authors mentioned in the query :)

Nate: What genre are you writing and who is your target audience? I think your writing and your story would have to be absolutely freaking spectacular to get a debut pubbed that's over the 100k mark. Most writers who have a novel longer than that have an overwritten story that needs a lot of pruning. :)

I really liked this query. I'll agree that the writing needs work, but I would buy the book. No question. I love "criminals blackmailed into service by (insert government)" stories.

And I like that it's shorter than Gabaldon's work. I liked Gabaldon's premise and characters, but the books just went on and on and on and, well, you get the idea.

Janet Reid said...

Nate, rich historical novels and epic fantasy are both categories that need bigass word count. Taut thrillers, not so much.

You didn't mention your category but if you're not writing historicals or fantasy, the 100K number stands.

Kimber Li said...

I think there is a great story in there somewhere. It just needs to be more effectively organized and presented. Don't give up!

Anonymous said...

I read a lot of Regency era fiction and this sounds like it could be a reasonably fresh twist on the Regency Historical Romantic Suspense sort of story. I don't see how 4 heroines are going to fit in 85K though, nor the level of political plotting that I think the query implies.

Plain Jane said...

When I began my first novel, which is young adult, I envisioned it would be around 95K words. When it came down to it, it rests in 7th revision around 85K and I think that's about where the mark stands. Too many more and I'd be risking the attention span of my primary audience.

In these historical novels, a fat word count can either guarantee the reader enough to build the foundation for his imaginary world . . . or it can guarantee plenty of graphs to leap-frog over. It depends on the content of those words and if they strenthen or water down the story.

Don't know about you but I appreciate my triple-strengh laundry detergent; it weighs less but delivers plenty of suds.

Anonymous said...

I'm intrigued by the characters already... some of the descriptions made me think of Eliza from Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle (which is about as far away from 85k as you can get), or what they should have done in Pirates with Keira Knightley....

I don't read romance at all (or I don't think I read romance at all), but if this was a strong historical actioner with lots of worldbuilding for me to get my teeth into, I'd buy it!

Lehcarjt said...

I rather like this, although not as a genre romance. Actually, I think if you want to sell it as a romance then the query should focus on a hero and a heroine. This reads more like historical adventure (probably why I like it).

I also agree that I can't see how you can possibly accomplish everything you want to in 85K words. Four romances in four parts of the world, the end of the british government, and a royal kidnapping?

One last thing... I'm wondering if we are all reading that first sentence wrong. Do you mean to imply that one woman faces deportation, another incarceration, etc.? To me it read as if all four women face all four items - which makes no sense.

Josin L. McQuein said...

I'm confused about the setting. Where does the primary story take place?

Also, doing down your list of threats and characters:

If Alicia is in India, how can she be deported... she's already in exile.

Why would a woman be commissioned as a privateer? That's not exactly right. (And privateers were pirates, not even to a lesser degree. They just had a guarantee of no prosecution from their home country.)

The whole spy in Paris set-up is a mess. Is the nation at stake supposed to be England or France? (I ask because you mention the tension between Louis and Bonaparte, so wouldn't that be the "Dauphin" and not the "Prince Regent"?)

And that last one - yikes. (Is the ingrate aware that she can abdicate a title or does she just like having an excuse to whine about being nobility?)

Suze said...

I actually like this. Yes, the query could use some work, but the bulk of the plot and characters sounds great to me. I'd buy it... but please, as alluded to by the previous commentators, make sure you have all your history ducks in a row.

And JLM - you usually only abdicate 'responsibility' --like a throne, or a high office of something, one usually renounces a title.. and anyway, the query sounds like she did just that :).

To the author - please try again, this seems to have promise :)

catlest said...

I'm heartened by the word count information. Janet, last week I sent you a query about a novel set in Iran right after the Islamic Revolution. I hadn't mentioned a word count because I thought at 130,000 words it would put people off -- I was hoping they'd be hooked by the story first and think about the word count later. Is that an error? Now Iran is not a fantasy world, but I feel it's strange enough to most Americans to justify quite a lot of scene-setting and tradition-explaining. I don't see my query critiqued yet -- how long do they usually sit before you do one? Or is mine so brilliantly well-written you can't improve on it? :)) (Except to add a word count?)

catlest said...

I'm heartened by the word count information. Janet, last week I sent you a query about a novel set in Iran right after the Islamic Revolution. I hadn't mentioned a word count because I thought at 130,000 words it would put people off -- I was hoping they'd be hooked by the story first and think about the word count later. Is that an error? Now Iran is not a fantasy world, but I feel it's strange enough to most Americans to justify quite a lot of scene-setting and tradition-explaining. I don't see my query critiqued yet -- how long do they usually sit before you do one? Or is mine so brilliantly well-written you can't improve on it? :)) (Except to add a word count?)

Rachel Hamm said...

catlast- she doesn't post all queries sent to query shark. just cross your fingers and hope!

Josin L. McQuein said...

If it gets posted at all, catlest, expect a long wait. I sent one months ago.


Ethereal_buddha said...

I had to laugh at this one too for the same reason Josin pointed out. Privateers were pirates! The admiralty in their home country couldn't do a damn thing to them and they were working under the commission of the king or queen!

Second, I don't see what Jocelyn has to do with any of this, nor do I see why Alicia is apart of the main characters. Wasn't India still apart of the british empire? And what does 'living in exile for murder' mean? I thought murderers were put in jail or executed. Why would they put her in exile in India? If she decided to flee to avoid murder charges, why the hell would she go to India?

This is probably why Shark says character soup is a bad idea.

When I finished this query all I thought was 'pirates of the carribean on estrogen'.

Nathan Carriker said...

Thanks all for your clarification on word count. I don't want to take over another writer's critique here, but FYI, I've learned that what I have is called a "frame story." Like "The Notebook."

I wrote it with mainstream in mind, but everyone seems to want to term it either a thriller (the frame) or a family saga (its gooey filling). Without either element, to me, it's far less compelling.

I've been working it off and on at Absolute Write and will now submit it to QS before I'm rightfully accused of taking over this poor guy's/lady's critique. We'll see if Janet (or anyone else) wants to take a cocky pilot down a few pegs. ;-)

P.S. I'm running out of time. My 2005 "near future" setting is fast becoming the present, and my characters are time-locked.

Ethereal_buddha said...

Don't you mean 'jump in the water' and not 'take this pilot down a few pegs'?

Sharks swim, not fly. And shark has a lot of chum to feast on!!! :)

Anonymous said...

Um...isn't this basically "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" with the serial numbers filed off?

jjdebenedictis said...

This sounds really interesting (and parsing the sentences didn't cause me all that much trouble), but I agree the query needs to focus more on the plot.

Lanette said...

E_buddha, didn't you see the 60's era Batman movie when the shark attacked Adam West on the helicopter?

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

@Lanette...WOW..good call. Even though I was young when I saw that Batman movie, I remember thinking "that shark was so fake"

That shark should be in the dictionary under "cheesy"

Also loved when Batman had to sing "Sweet Buttercup" to get free from being tied.

Ethereal_buddha said...

Sorry...I missed the 60's. :)

Josin L. McQuein said...

Forget Batman, all you have to do is watch Super Shark vs. Giant Squid (actually, I don't recommend watching that at all - when a movie stars Lorenzo Lamas and Debbie Gibson, and THAT's the highlight of the film... 'nuff said).

The "super shark" (roughly the size of an aircraft carrier) leaps from the water (vertically!) and takes out a plane.

Somewhere the man who invented moving pictures is weeping in his grave.

E.D. Walker said...

Um, ok, you call this a "historical romance novel", so who's the romance between? The four women? Or are there men in the picture. I think if you're going to identify this as a romance novel, the romance aspect should get some page space.

Ethereal_buddha said...

Moth-I totally missed that on the first read through. Good call.

Alli Sinclair said...

I think the idea behind the book sounds intriguing - I would certainly buy the book and read it. I think after cleaning up the query and considering some of the points the other commentators have made, this MS will get some agent interest. Keep at it - you'll get there!

Aimlesswriter said...

The paragraph that starts "These four women" should be the start of your query. But the last sentence confuses me. Maybe because I don't read historicals that often. (Although I love Diana G.)
Maybe if you keep the first part of that paragraph and make the next paragraph about what the bad guys are doing in more detail?
I would also research agents as to who is actively looking for historicals. Although the shark is on my A list the comment about not judging historicals lead me to believe it's not her cup of tea.

swedishfish said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Plain Jane said...

Although this ms is incredibly long, I have to wonder if it would be possible to break it into more than one novel and perhaps focus more sharply on the plights of one character at a time? Then you both satisfy word count criteria and ensue that you have something to offer your readers when they get to the end of the first and are craving the next?

This would be something I'd read but as a hardback, it would probably weigh as much as my car and as a paperback, it would probably bust a binding after reading it for more than a few weeks.

Just a thought. Anyone else?

JS said...

Who is having a romance? With whom?

Either this isn't a romance, or it's way overpopulated. Romance, as a genre, is about the relationship between two people who have to overcome obstacles to be happy in love. Two people.

This seems to be about either four people (if the women are romancing each other) or eight people (if the women are romancing some guys), and thus not a romance.

Dave The Angry Rhode Islander said...

I should hope for the author that this novel *isn't* in the rich tradition of Diana Gabaldon. Do we really want more sadist, masochistic, misogynistic "romance" novels?

Unknown said...

Plain Jane,

I think you misread the query, as 85,000 words is not incredibly long. The, um, sizeable word counts were in reference to Diana Gabaldon's books.

Plain Jane said...

Lucy, thank you for pointing that out. Now we know the harm in skipping the yearly eye exam. What number was this post, 798? (@-@)

Sorry author.

Anonymous said...

It feels like there's a streak of "man-hating" here. The author references the tradition of Gabaldon & Laurens; that keys me in to romance genre. But most women reading romance love men, especially the heroes. So this turns me off right now. I agree with the commenter who said she'd like to see discussion of the heroes as well as the heroines. said...

Oh man, I LIKE this query. I certianly do wonder if the author can pull off a four-women (lead characters?) novel and I would definitely want to see the first few pages to find out. Would take some mighty fine weaving.

But if this author was up to the task, this is a killer novel! Forget query etiquette and look at the book behind the query. Wow! said...

I thought it had great potential, if you can just get the query right. Please try again.

dolorah said...

Hmm, I didn't know how all these women tie together, though they all sound like interesting characters.

I was beta reader for a historical ghost novel of 90k. It left me with too many questions, so I had to go to the internet to find my answers. When I told him I did that, I guess he thought nobody else would, and didn't add any more details.

Shame really, it was a good book otherwise.

Good luck with the re-writes.


Unknown said...

Honestly, does it have to be a romance? When I read it I was put in mind of Little Women. A book can have several main characters but you have to keep their interaction with each other the main theme, versus love with some unknown.

But that's just an opinion.

Jill Elizabeth said...

Is it just me, or is "romance" the last genre this description would fit under?

talltales said...

Janet, I was under the impression from reading books and websites on writing query letters to limit them to one page. Yet all the ones I reviewed were much longer. Your comments please.


Anonymous said...

Post-revions comment:

This writing feels effortful. I have the impression of someone working with a dictionary on one knee and a thesaurus on the other, and that makes for heavy reading. It lacks voice.

Here's an example of what I mean:

The challenge to Bonaparte’s rampage commenced the moment Napoleon sailed from St. Elba. The moment the Frenchman concedes defeat is the same moment in which these men will execute the final steps in their plan.

The first sentence is weighed down by big words-- challenge, commenced, rampage-- so that I'm too tired by the end to even be bothered by the "St. Elba" error. In the next sentence the writer uses a synonym for Napoleon, which is simply confusing. (You do not need to use synonyms for character names, no matter what Ms. Wililams said in 8th grade English.)

Try to rewrite this using words and sentences you would use in everyday speech. It sounds like an interesting story idea, but it's just bogged down by the language.

Christopher F. Mills said...

"Big ass word count"... that's funny.

Anonymous said...

Although I am not a big fan of the historical genre, the story sounds intriguing. I'm guessing this story was multiple POV, which isn't very easy to write, especially in 85k words. I hope it turned out well for the author.