Sunday, April 4, 2010


Dear Query Shark,

I would like you to consider Polaris, my YA romantic suspense novel for your list. The manuscript is completed at 81,000 words.

Don't start with this. It's not the most enticing part of your query letter. It's the housekeeping part: the word count, that it's finished. Put it at the end. And you can leave out that you want me to consider this. Of course you do. I want you to keep breathing, and have a long and happy life, but I don't start my letter to you with that.

I see this a lot. I think it's because you feel awkward just leaping into the deep end of the query. Don't be. A quick drop into cold water is EXACTLY how you want to start a novel (and thus a query.)

"Don't play with fire," this is one of the first lessons we learn as children. "You will be burned," Valerie's mother said. How is that possible? She thought, the only way it would be so is if that love was lost, and that- Valerie knew- would never happen.

It's unclear to whom "she" refers.

Don't play with fire is something you'd teach a little child. It doesn't have anything to do with love. "You'll get burned" obviously IS about love relationships. It's jarring to have them together. I can see your writerly eyeballs rolling as you think "it continues the metaphor" but it doesn't. It punches a hole in the metaphor and it's confusing to your reader.

Oops, she was wrong.

With a future that has been meticulously planned and a destiny left unfulfilled, 21 year old Valerie Burke takes a gruesome journey through her past as she remembers her former existence with Dean Morrow, the ex-boyfriend who left her, disappearing without a trace for only God knows what reason.

That's one sentence. There are places for long ass sentences in novels, indeed there are. There isn't much room for them in short-form work like queries.

Remember, agents are reading fast. We're not curled up on the couch with kitten and cup of tea. We're reading at midnight after a long day in the office, and trying to figure out if your novel is something we want to read.
It's MUCH more helpful to have shorter sentences and just get to the heart of things.

"Destiny left unfulfilled" doesn't actually say anything.

She is a lost, empty vessel that is searching the dark planes of her life for a single light in the black abyss, a North Star- a Polaris, that will guide her home- then she finds him.

More empty images. It's not that I don't like the images, I do. But without the substance of the novel, it's filigree on a house with no foundation, and I am NOT buying a house with no foundation.

Hand-in-hand with her best friend, Matt Larson, this high-school art teacher channels her surreal memories and buried secret into art therapy: This will be the beginning of a process which forges a woman from the fleeting shadow of a child. Valerie becomes re-born, like a pheonix from the ashes of an ill-fated love, just in time to be knocked on her butt again.

Did you misspell phoenix or is that a UK spelling? The occasional misspelled word won't kill a query (misused words, however, will) This paragraph is more filigree.

She is murdered by a stranger and resurrected by an angel of her past- Dean Morrow, who saw that coming? Now, Dean and Matt, who have two very different ideas about justice and who are irrevocably in love with the same woman, join to hunt down the wanted perpetrator. This trio of star-crossed lovers will be caught in a web of secrets and vindication and Valerie will consequentially have a choice to make.

Wait. Wait. Wait. The person I think is the protagonist of the novel is dead? This is the paragraph that finally, sort of, gets to what the novel is about.

Below is the preface to Polaris, it is just over two pages long. Thank you for your consideration and time, I look forward to hearing back from you.

Preface? Preface? That odd high pitched sound you hear when you tilt your ear to the left is the QueryShark screaming under her reef in the Slough of Despond. (The QueryShark dwells in a slough, not a sea)

Never, ever, NEVER use a preface or a prologue or chapter 0 or whatever you are calling the part that comes before chapter one, as sample pages. Chapter one, pages one up to whatever the number agent wants (QS asks for pages one to three/five)

There is nothing in this query that remotely supports the idea this is a YA novel.YA novels have characters in their teens, not twenties.

This is a form rejection.


Josin L. McQuein said...

This query says a lot, but tells the reader nothing other than the characters' names and that she's an art teacher.

The quote from the book in the middle is shoe-horned in, and it shows. It interrupts the query's flow.

And you use WAY too many metaphors. Back-to-back metaphors, at that.

What - exactly - happens to this woman, and where - exactly - does your story start?

What - exactly - is she hoping to gain?

Is the death literal murder? Or is it metaphoric, like the phoenix?

(Are you saying she literally goes back through her history? Is that why you classified it as YA?)

Joseph L. Selby said...

Of the agents whose blogs I follow, you're one of the few that have chosen to address the inclusion/exclusion of prefaces. You're also the first I've seen advocate exclusion.

The reasoning for inclusion was simply, start at the beginning. If you the author felt the need to start with a preface, you should start your sample at that same spot.

Why do you feel the preface should be excluded?

Christi Goddard said...

I agree with Janet -this does not sound YA. It sounds like adult contemporary fantasy or paranormal romance.


You don't need to give the premise behind the name of your novel in the query. It is revealed in the book to an agent who is impressed enough with the query and concept.

Remove the beginning fluff paragraphs and incorporate the essence of what you want to say in an action way.


Valerie Burkes' boyfriend disappeared without a trace. Lost in grief, she...

For additional help, you might try a forum like Evil Editor or Nathan Bransford. (still love you most, Janet :-) )

Patty said...

Wow! Learned something on this one. I had no idea that when asked for the first pages of the mss that you started with chapter one--not the actual first pages.

Forgive me, Toothy One, if I'd missed that lesson with other posts. Got it now, though!

I like the imagery and the title of the book--Polaris--north star guiding the character.

I was little startled to realize that Dean was dead. I really like the premise--love triangle working together to discover the secret, but I don't see the potential spark of the book revealed in the query.

Seems like a romantic suspense, but not so much YA.

Good luck on the rewrite!

M. G. E. said...

This might be the worst well-written query in a long time. Worst for more subtle reasons beyond simply spelling and other obviousness.

Apart from the structure of the query, the line "Don't play with fire," is intended to be a hook? Apparently? It's not effective.

I assumed not that it was a metaphor about love but about dating, that her mother had warned her that dating this person was playing with fire. But this is also why it's not a great idea to drop a paragraph from your book into the query, we don't know the characters or the context. We're left guessing rather than interested.

Then, apparently, the protag is killed and goes on "a gruesome journey through her past." Is gruesome the right word here? Maybe grueling? Shades of "A Christmas Carol."

There are cliches all over the place, which serve as a marker of unoriginal writing and also don't interest the reader.

Some stuff I can't tell if it's hyperbole for effect or not. When you write she's resurrected, does that mean literally? Or just that he got her to the hospital in time?

This submission is drowning in flowery phrases and my feet are searching for the bottom, for that which is concrete, to keep my head above water. And there's not enough of it.

And, man, a preface? A two-page preface? Wha--?

You know how much attention a book on a bookshelf gets these days by a random browser? Go to a book store and watch people.

They will read the inside cover to see what it's about, and they'll read the first paragraph or two, and at that point it's decision time. Put the book down. Or buy it.

If you aren't trying to hook readers with the very first sentence you're in trouble.

I suggest the book "Stein on Writing" by Sol Stein.

Stephanie Barr said...

I read this with no real reason what the novel was about.

In the end, I think that's what really kills this. I while back, I would have written a query maybe like this, but not after reading the others in query shark's blog.

A.E. Wilson said...

Oh man, you guys really ripped me a new one- but alas that is why I am here- to learn from my mistakes. I guess I totally screwed this one up, it's my first query (ever). What happens is Valerie (the 21 year old art teacher) throughout the book remembers her time with Dean Morrow, the boyfriend who left her. She grows through the story and through the memories and through art therapy (so there is that psychological aspect to the story) and begins to fall in love with her child-hood sweet heart, Matt. Later she is murdered (literally, drowned) and brought back to life (literally) by Dean who comes out of no where. (Dean does not die in this book.) Then Dean and Matt hunt down the perp who is on the run with intentions to bring him to justice. They both have very different idea's about justice and they both love Valerie, so this makes for great tension through and through. I chose to send the preface of the book because the agent I was querying said to send the first 3 pages of the book and I assumed she meant literally- the first 3 pages. Also the preface of my book I felt left something to desire, I thought. Well thanks for tearing me shreds (I learn from my mistakes) keep it going :)

Sarah said...

What a great attitude, Amanda!

I was wondering what happens to Valerie after she's murdered and brought back? To me, that feels like the point where the story really starts. But then, it seems the story concentrated on Dean and Matt and the tension between them. What are the choices Valerie faces? The stakes (as QS so often asks)?

I think that would really help me understand what's going on.

Good luck as you work through all the toothy feedback!

Alissa Grosso said...

I actually had to jump back to the start of this query because I thought that the author had said it was YA, but then nothing in the query seemed to support this.

The fact that she's dead and has been brought back to life needs to be in the first paragraph. That's the interesting stuff.

lora96 said...

I'm a teacher. I went to college to become one. I was not a prodigy (and nothing in the query indicates that the MC is Doogie Teacher, B.S.). Therefore, like her, I'm an adult.

YA books are not about MC's who are teachers.

Liza Swift said...

Hey Amanda

First off well done for finishing your book and having the guts to query the shark (I'm not quite there yet!).

The comment that you left tells way more about the book than your query did- it's already much better. Remember as query is not a blurb, it's not trying to entice the reader without giving away the plot. It is the plot. I got the idea that you were trying to too hard...

Best of luck for next time!

Cheryl Angst said...

I'm not entirely sure about teacher certification in the States, but I can't imagine it being all that much different than here in Canada. If it is, please feel free to diregard this comment. ;)

In Canada, teachers are required to have an undergraduate degree (4 years) in a teachable subject, then one or two years of subsequent teacher training. This means that an 18-year-old high school graduate would not be out in the workforce before the age of 23.

I know it's picky, but as an educator, I find the idea of a 21-year-old art teacher to be unbelievable without background info that explains her seemingly too young age. If you have addressed this within the novel itself, then, once again, please ignore my feedback.

Good luck with the rewrite - surviving the Query Shark is going to make your first query into your best query!

Lehcarjt said...

My understanding from the original query was that the protag died and then was reborn AS Dean. Then Dean and the other guy go on a hunt for justice because they are both in love with the protag. I found this hilarious and after it, plain jane resurrection seems boring (even on Easter Sunday!)

M. G. E. said...

"Preface: noun. A preliminary statement or essay introducing a book that explains its scope, intention, or background and is usually written by the author."

This is not the first thing you want a reader to encounter when they browse into your book in a bookstore.

In fact, I have a hard time imagining it belonging in a novel at all (though there's always "Lolita").

It's a novel. It's in the novel+genre section of the bookstore. That's all the preface they need to know.

Start with Ch-1 (or dispense with chapters altogether).

Your query needs a lot more meat: specifics, plot, concrete detail and less abstraction.

The plot summary you offered above should be the basis for your revision.

Irene Troy said...

First: with the others, I congratulate you on completing your book and for having the guts to send the query to the Shark so the rest of us can learn from your mistakes. As to the query: there are far too many clichés within the letter. Hopefully – very hopefully – the book is not full of similar clichés. After reading your clarification, I remain confused about the plot. Valerie is a 21yo art teacher (yes, this a bit of a stretch) who reflects back on her life with Dean. She begins to fall in love with her childhood sweetheart – Matt. I thought Dean was her sweetheart? She is murdered, brought back to life by Dean who then joins forces with Matt to search for her murderer. Something about this seems a tad hackneyed and not true to life. Hopefully, that “something” is just my own confusion.

In a previous post I suggested that sometimes fewer words are better than more words and that a simple plot – well developed – might result in a better story. I believe this same thought can easily apply to a query. The idea should be to give the potential agent a reason to request more pages. Clarifying the storyline and explaining the characters roles more precisely may be a place to start the rewrite.

A.E. Wilson said...

Thank you thank you for yet more feeback. Lehcarjt, your synopsis from my query is totally off, this obviously is in whole to my explaining the plot all wrong. That would be a kick-ass plot but it's not mine.

Sarah, the "stakes" are the boys taking off after this perp who Dean wants to rip to shreds and Matt simply wants brought back to the police. Upon their return, Valerie has to make a choice: Dean, Matt or neither. I sat down for over an hour tonight writing, erasing and re-writing this damn query. I am a creative writer and it goes against my grain to write a factual (almost) report on the entire plot of my story, not bothering to disguise or hide the nitty gritty plot secrets. But I will get it, persistence is perfection. Thanks again for the helpful comments, and I can't thank QS enough for posting my query on her blog! This is an amazing and invaluable oppurtunity.

Adam Heine said...

I can understand leaving out a preface. Like M.G.E. says, a preface is not actually a part of the story.

But a prologue, if done well (which is admittedly very hard to do), is part of the story. If the prologue is backstory, infodumping, or unrelated to the story, it shouldn't be there anyway. But a good prologue, I think, should be the sample pages, no?

I usually send my prologue because it's the beginning of my story, but I remove the title "Prologue" just in case I run across agents like the Shark ;-)

Adam Heine said...

I've also seen lots and lots of agents say they want the genre/word count up-front. So, I don't know. That may vary from agent to agent.

That said, I start my query with the story because I've always agreed with the Shark's reasoning on this one.

Theresa Milstein said...

Amanda, you're brave for having your query up for scrutiny and revealing yourself in the comments. Queries are hard and I don't claim to have it all figured out.

Your explanation of your novel makes more sense in the comments section. Use that type of information and keep your protagonist's voice in mine, and I think your query will be much improved. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

@ Amanda - you have a great attitude. I'm not sure I'd have the guts to sign up for this. I think just the fact that you have the courage to expose yourself & then the grace to take criticism as you did increases your chances of being successful.

CKHB said...

Amanda, I'd suggest you stay away from the overly-casual tone of "Oops, she was wrong" and "who saw that coming?" It's not professional enough, and doesn't match the "romantic suspense" tone you want to convey. Good luck!

JS said...

as an educator, I find the idea of a 21-year-old art teacher to be unbelievable

Actually, it's not unbelievable in the US. Unusual, but not unbelievable--in most US public school systems, there is a role for "probationary teachers" with newly BA/BS degrees. They are required to earn their teaching certificate and/or their master's degree within five years.

I know a couple of people who went right from undergraduate education to teaching in the public schools (in New York and Detroit, actually, where there was a teacher shortage until recently).

JS said...

I am a creative writer and it goes against my grain to write a factual (almost) report on the entire plot of my story, not bothering to disguise or hide the nitty gritty plot secrets

Amanda, this is also a big part of being a writer. It's not all unfettered creativity--professionalism is also key. You can do it.

On the "YA" thing: as the Shark and others have said, this is not a YA novel, because it's about adults who have finished college and are in the workforce.

I wonder if you were thinking of the "New Adult" category that St. Martin's Press launched last fall? More on that here.

Right now, "New Adult" isn't a formal category anywhere but St. Martin's, so I wouldn't think it would be a plus to describe your book with that tag.

Lorelei Armstrong said...

I'm just curious as to what your main character does while the two guys go off to hunt the "perp." What actions does she take in the book?

Unknown said...

I've heard that the query needs to be in the 'voice' of the book (not the POV, but the same tempo and tone). If this query was an example of the voice of the book, this would NOT work for a YA novel. YA readers would fall asleep.

A.E. Wilson said...

CKHB, disobedient writer and JB- thank you for your encouragement(it is greatly needed) and feedback (which is equally needed). Good suggestion to keep out those catch phrases- you are right, they are not professional. And professionalism is a big part of being a successful writer and I do believe I am a professional. I tagged the book YA because for about half of the novel Valerie remembers her time as a teenager with Dean and her other friends, but in the present she is a 20 something year old career gal- so YA is out. I guess I will stick with good old "romantic suspense". Thank you thank thank you again for the encouragement and helpful criticism!!

_*rachel*_ said...

Honestly, there are so many metaphors, similes, and spacey images in here that I'm starting to think you're straight out of a Frank Peretti novel, and not in a good way.

Save the fancy stuff for the book and tell us what actually happens.

Anonymous said...

"Consequentially"-- mm, how 'bout "consequently"?

Re prefaces, I don't know how the Shark feels, but personally I can't think of a reason for a preface to a novel, other than that it was written over a century ago and certain matters of context need to be explained to the modern reader.

A.E. Wilson said...

Lorelei, the MC is in the hospital while the guys go on their journey to hunt down the wanted perp. (She almost died.) As the reader, we go on this journey with them. We are kept up to date with what is going on with Valerie and other charecters through phone calls made by the two guys.

EDL said...

No Prologue pages? Oops, good to know. I will adjust my query package accordingly. Thank you.

GrandmasterB said...

Amanda, when I read your query, I assumed there was a paranormal element to your novel -- Valerie dies, returns like a phoenix. But in your later comments you mention she almost died -- as in, her old boyfriend saved her life.

I'm not sure if your novel contains paranormal elements or not, so my guess is that at least one or two other query readers might be confused as well.

Keep working on your query, and keep up that positive attitude. Good luck!

Patty said...

Wow, Amanda

Great attitude. With each question you answer, you are revealing vital elements to the story. Fine tune your responses here and you'll have an excellent query.

Best of luck!

Anonymous said...

With regard to the 21-year-old art teacher: it's technically possible, but extremely improbable.

Each of the 50 United States has its own teacher certification program, but it's pretty similar in most of them: only a bachelor's degree is required for the initial certificate. (A master's degree is required for recertification in some states.)

So a person who graduated a year early, or who started kindergarten at age 4 and had a birthday between August and December, might become a teacher at 21.

Thing is, in many years as a teacher and an education professor, and working with hundreds of teachers, I've never known a 21-year-old teacher.

(And by the way they'd have a hell of a time just keeping their class in line.)

To me the teacher's age would tend to suggest that the writer hadn't done her research. And the fact that several people have commented on it shows that it is an issue, and distracts from the suspension of disbelief.

April said...

Since you have adult characters in your novel, does it have to be classified as YA? It seems the book could do just fine as an adult paranormal romance (if the protagonist's resurrection is brought about in a paranormal way).

Also, one question: who is Valerie's Polaris? Is it Matt, Dean, or her own inner voice?

TirzahLaughs said...

Yes, but in the query you imply that she is either dead or resurrected.

In no way does it imply that she survived. In today's market of vampire novels, you have to be careful of using the word resurrected. Readers won't assume she got CPR and ended up in the hospital. They'll assume she's a paranomal creature of the night.

The plot still confuses me even after you've explained it.

I think this is your plot:

Girl is in love with Dean in high school. Without breaking up with her, Dean just disappears one day. She is very upset and this event changes her life forever. She finally puts it behind her with therapy and becomes an art teacher. Although the age is pushing it. She also gets a new boyfriend, Mike.

Then she is nearly murdered but Dean's person/ghost saves her life. She ends up in the hospital (coma?). Dean and Mike become uneasy allies to hunt down the person who attacked her.

They get the bad guy, she has to choose her old love or her new one. The end.

Is that right?

A.E. Wilson said...

TirzahLaughs, You've got the plot pretty much right, except Dean is not a ghost. No part of the novel is paranormal, that was just my error in describing the events with too many metaphors. I won't make that mistake again!

There will be tension during "the hunt" (When Dean and Matt go off to hunt down the perp) because they are both in love with her and both want to be with her, therefor causing the tension between them.

April, good question! At first it would seem that Matt is her "Polaris". During the first few months after Dean leaves, he is her pillar so to speak, and he helps her to remember who she was pre-Dean. (She had been with Dean for five years). As she grows she becomes more evolved as an individual and more independant and mature and is able to continue the healing process on her own through art therapy which she learned in school. Lastly, the Polaris would become Dean as he saves her from a brutal attacker.

There will be two choices in the end of the novel, not only Valerie's choice between the two boys but also Dean and Matt's choice as to what to do with Val's attacker after they find him. Dean is more apt to wanting to beat the snot out of him and leaving him for dead, and Matt has a more tender heart and wants to simply bring him back to the police in his town and let them deal with the scum attacker.

Since everyone is mentioning her role as a 21 year old teacher, this is something I will have to modify. I have done extensive research on the town: number of occupants, types of homes, geography, ect. I have also done extensive research on Art Therapy. I however will have to revise her role in the school system, maybe making her an after-school art program director or a private school art teacher for younger children. This is something I should have thought about more but when I sit down to write, I becomes so engrosed in the story and can not seem to put my work away until I realize it is past mid-night and I have to get up early the next morning to start my day.

Anyway... hope that answers some of your inquiries. I thank you again for your feedback and encouragment!

silu said...

Your blog is so funny!
Thank for all the posts, I read everyone one.

Marian Perera said...

Others have already mentioned the most important concerns, but there's one thing I'd like to add: the tone of the query felt a bit off to me at certain points:

Valerie becomes re-born, like a pheonix from the ashes of an ill-fated love, just in time to be knocked on her butt again.

"Reborn like a phoenix from the ashes" is flowery and solemn. "Knocked on her butt" is breezy and casual. I wouldn't put them in the same sentence.

A.E. Wilson said...

Good suggestion, Marian. Thanks for the comment!

Ethereal_buddha said...

I'm all for different. I am, really. Having said that, it seems like your plot comes more toward the end. That kinda bothers me because (just from what you've described) I have to read through all of Dean and Matt's heroics and your main character just has to die, come back to life and nothing else.
I want to know and love your character. I want to love and know your other characters. But in my own opinion, if your main character is weak, why would I want to read on?
Dean comes back and revives Valerie, and the two guys go hunt the killer down?
Did valerie do anything to provoke the killer? It seems like the drowning and then being brought back to life would cause Dean to come into the picture because had she not 'died' he wouldn't be in the book and thus would chose Matt. To me, this would be the actual plot.
I'm no one to judge that it's good or bad, but from everything Amanda posted in the comments it sounds like it's actually a romance novel and not YA.
I do think you have to make a decision as to which one it is.

Unknown said...

Many aspiring writers, including myself, start their query with... the reason for contacting the agent, title, word count, and genre because there is a lot of conflicting information out there. Agent Query for example, says... Do start your query with this info. because it lets the agent a) know why your contacting them. b)allows the agent to orientate themselves. c) Lets agent know whether the word count fits the genre. If a writer is submitting a 100k middle grade fantasy... it shows lack of knowledge on behalf of the writer...
I know all agents are different in what they want, because all people are different. But I really wish that agencies would adopt a standard query letter and submission protocols across the board so writers can focus on getting their work out there, and not have to focus on constantly changing query letters to fit everyone's preferences. I think in the end it would make agents' tasks easier as well.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about that Nlj5216.

If an agent likes the numbers stated first in the query, I'll happily cut and paste. If they want it last, awesome. Done. You don't like helvetica you say? No problem. TNR is a click away.

I've spent the past two nights reading every query on this blog and that's, what, only two hundred or so?

After the first 25, I understood why all agents have assistants to go through the slush pile. After that last 25, I wondered why anyone is willing to be an agent at all.

(Or at the very least, why Ms. Shark hasn't thrown her chair at her Mac by now. Then again, maybe she has.)

Agents have to read far more queries than any writer will ever have to write. Format issues that seem trivial when seen in a sole query become teeth-grating when multiplied by the thousands of queries agents have to wade through. I would get persnickety too. I would get damn persnickety.