Sunday, April 11, 2010


Dear Query Shark:

THE CURSE OF ADAM’S GIFT, a 110,000 word paranormal adventure, is set in the 1950's Mississippi Delta, the year Fredrick Miller, a seventeen-year-old laborer, is set to go through a two week ritual his family believes will usher him into manhood.

You really don't want to start a query this way. Start with the main character, and what problem or choice he faces. All the other stuff (title, word count, category) comes later.

Fredrick's supervised life falls apart after Johnny B, his best friend, begins a campaign of terror against local whites and strangles a rich man's son to death. This reignites racial hatred in the small town that had been quiet for twenty years. Stressed at having to jump into ditches or cut through the woods at the site of any strange vehicles, Fredrick starts having otherworldly visions his uncle, Willie, calls "the gift of the blood" and "his true inheritance." But this blood-gift also carries a deadly curse and Fredrick learns the reason why a part of his family's bizarre and tragic past had been kept a secret.

And this is where I'd stop reading. "Stressed at having to jump into ditches" makes me wonder if you've ever heard the word "lynching." If a black man in the Mississippi Delta in the 50's went on a campaign of terror against whites, "stress" is about the last word I'd use to describe how the community felt. Terror comes to mind. So does panic.

A driving lust for independence drives Fredrick away from Beulah May, the attractive but lonely girl determined to loved him, even while he is forced to defend himself against her brutal older brothers who want to kill him because they hate everything their sister loves. When Willie dies, Fredrick's new roll

you mean role. Typos are one thing; mistaking words that sound alike means you're not paying attention, or you don't know. Neither are good things in a writer.

as the man of the family turns grim and intolerable. He is forced to leave town and live in the forested river valley along the Mississippi River. It is in the deep woods where he finds the one man who could answer all his questions and show him a glimpse of the unseen world behind all he thought real. Death follows him there too.

Thank you for considering my submission. The full manuscript is available upon request.


This is a mess. You've got too many characters and not enough specifics. What choice does Frederick have to make? What are the consequences of that choice?

Form rejection.


Dear Query Shark

I would like to invite you to review the manuscript for my first novel, a paranormal adventure titled ADAM’S GIFT, and ask that you please consider representing me.

I would like to invite you to start with what the novel is about.
I know it feels abrupt, but you've got a VERY limited amount of time to catch my attention, and hold my interest. Don't waste it on empty niceties.

When does a boy become a man? Is it on his eighteenth birthday, after years of manhood training?

Don't start with rhetorical questions. Particularly ones that involve a phrase like "manhood training." I'm not sure what that is, but I'm very afraid it involves Budweiser, fart jokes, and World of Warcraft strategy manuals.

Or is it after his involvement the death of an entire family?

You're missing a word here. Sloppy proofreading isn't enticing.

For seventeen-year-old field laborer, Fredrick Miller, manhood was fulfilling a destiny his father and uncle created for him before he was born.

At last we get to something that seems like the start of things. It actually doesn't say anything because it's so general, but it's better than what came before.

For five years he had been taught right speech, right thinking, and to make the right choices in his young life.

Is the five years important? Your query needs to focus on what's important about the story and the choices the characters make. Is this?

But in the year of his climatic manhood ritual, a driving lust for independence and self-discovery pulls him off his destined path and away from the determined girl who pressured him to loved her.

And we're done. For starters, this is too general to be useful for setting the scene or conveying what actually happens. This is like describing Gone with the Wind as a sweeping epic of war, instead of saying "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were." Both are accurate. Which one makes you want to read on?

Fredrick supervised life unravels after he witnesses the strangulation murder of Stonewall Mississippi’s prominent son by his best friend and he begins having strange, otherworldly visions he cannot understand.

Here's where your story actually begins. The sentence is so badly written I don't know who is strangling whom. Simplify. Simplify. Simplify. I know I sound like a broken record on this, but it's harder than it looks to write simple clean sentences.

His quiet, small-town life turns grim and intolerable as the teenager begins to discover his family's bazaar and tragic past, where he learns the nature of his true inheritance - the gift of the blood. And there too Fredrick finds death, and glimpses an unseen world behind the veil of all he thought real.

Bazaar is not bizarre. Misused words are an automatic rejection. I can and do overlook sloppy proofing and mistakes and typos but not this. Words are your tools. If you don't use them correctly, it's like a mechanic doing an oil change with a garden hose.

Born and raised in Mississippi, I spent many evenings listening to elder storytellers who spoke of the harsh realities of life under Jim Crow. Yet there was a magical element in their stories that captivated me above the gloom and despair, as if I could see, touch, and smell the things they described. The souls of those dignified people remained rooted in the rich Mississippi Delta soil while they told their unique tales to later generations.

And what the heck does that have to do with anything you've described in the preceding paragraphs?

May I send you the completed 120,000 word manuscript and give you a chance to see what Fredrick saw behind this tragic curtain we call the world?

120K is really long for a novel.

And "tragic curtain we call the world?" What on earth does that even mean?

Thank you for your time.


This is a form rejection.
Start over again.

Start with what choice or decision the main character needs to make.


Josin L. McQuein said...

From the sound of the opening lines, I was expecting this to be some sort of fantasy world serfdom. All that talk of field labor and destiny and rituals...

... then you hit us with "Mississippi" as the location. It doesn't fit right with the tone of your letter.

Anonymous said...

The Shark says she ignores sloppy proofing. My guess? A lot of agents and editors don't. There's always the suspicion the writer doesn't know the rule, as in "For seventeen-year-old field laborer, Fredrick Miller, manhood was..."

"Climatic" means having to do with climate.

Sorry to be a kibitzer, but if you don't polish your language use to as near perfect as you can get it, your query will give the impression that you don't care all that much... which I'm sure isn't true.

middle grade ninja said...

I love to watch the shark in a full on frenzy. I learn so much reading this site. But would I ever submit a query to the shark? Not me. I'm far too timid. I'll stick to the shore.

_*rachel*_ said...

Miss Snark's formula for telling us the plot is:

X is the main guy; he wants to do:
Y is the bad guy; he wants to do:
they meet at Z and all L breaks loose.
If they don’t resolve Q, then R starts and if they do it’s L squared

Use this to shape your query so it makes sense. Then proofread and don't confuse things like bazaar and bizarre.

Stephanie Barr said...

The one thing I have learned best reading this excellent blog is that queries aren't about why you wrote something (though that's often what we write in our queries) but why someone else would want to read it.

I don't understand the appeal of this story and, I think, that's the problem. I know the story meant something for you to write it. I know you care enough to have put 120K words to paper to tell the story.

But, for those of us who weren't inspired, we need to care about someone in your story or the journey must be completely captivating. Preferably both. I don't see either.

jjdebenedictis said...

"Seventeen-year-old field labourer Fredrick lives a tightly-supervised life in Stonewall, Mississippi, but after seeing his best friend murder a prominent citizen, Fredrick begins to have visions."

And then what? What does Fredrick decide he has to do? Why does he decide to do that? How does he go about doing it? Possibly most importantly, what gets in Fredrick's way? And what will the cost be if he doesn't accomplish what he sets out to do?

As the Query Shark and other commenters noted, you also need to work on your basic language skills. You might have a great story to tell, but editors and agents become less willing to help you get it to the public if they foresee having to do a lot copyediting work before your work is of publishable quality. As the writer, it's your responsibility to iron out these little wrinkles, so invest effort in learning how to. It will only help you achieve your writing goals. Good luck!

jessjordan said...

... "in the year of his climatic manhood ritual"

Wait ... What?

I grimaced a little when I read that. Perhaps a "manhood ritual" (Eww!) is common in the area you reside, but it isn't for me. So, if this language is important to include, you might want to be a little more clear.

Also, your query should be brief and to the point, rather than the long and winding, stop-and-sniff-the-daisies road you've taken us on.

Agents don't have time for daisies. Unless they're killer daisies from outer space, who've taken over the world and are holding all the tulips hostage until they get what they want.

Okay ... So agents probably don't have time for *those* daisies, either. But maybe you get my point.

sherry stanfa-stanley said...

"Budweiser, fart jokes, and World of Warcraft strategy manuals." Heh. If that was part of a proposal for a book called "Manhood Training," I'd so read pages for it...

Jaycee Adams said...

I'm not disagreeing with a thing you said, Shark, but you've got more than one grammatical gaff in your response. I know you're writing for speed, but I couldn't help dropping a cork in your airhole for a second as a funny.

(Yes, I know sharks don't have airholes.)

I must applaud you for braving that submission. I couldn't have read it myself. In fact I couldn't read it myself. It looks like it was written by someone for whom English is not a first language. Sadly, many such people are better writers than many native Americans. (small n.)

Elsewhere in my life, like usually in a forum where I want to welcome people and ideas to the various communities I'm part of, I might be able to forgive someone for writing that way. But here? He's lucky the shark got him first.

You have my sympathy for your stomach ache and my thanks for your devotion to eating the trash in the sea. Now if only you'd do something about all the jellyfish...

And thank you, Rachel, for Miss Snark's formula. I'm too new to have seen it before now.

M. G. E. said...

This query is exhibit 1 on why trying to sound writerly in a query can backfire. This isn't the enticing dust jacket copy you're writing. You can give away the plot here. Don't worry about spoilers.

Lastly, put your best foot forward. Spend more than 20 minutes on your query, read and re-read, edit and re-edit. Then sleep on it and do it all again.

If your query is professional, you help assure the agent that you're professional. If it's a novice query, guess what they think of you.

After an agent reads my query I want them to not only be wowed by the idea, but to be secretly hoping I'm as good a client as I am a writer based on the professional presentation.

Anonymous said...

Jaycee, were you trying to make a nautical pun by referencing an iron hook with a handle for landing large fish, or did you mean "gaffe"?

( )

Emily White said...


It's spelled "gaffe." Just spreading the funny! :)

I agree with the Shark. This query was just far too general to really say anything. I had a hard time reading through the whole thing and even when I did, I still wasn't sure what exactly the book was about.

Anonymous said...

I'm DYING to know what a climactic manhood ritual is! It's not common knowledge and if it's climactic, why are we left wondering???

Jaycee Adams said...

I have to admit, I didn't think anyone would catch that. I figured I had plenty of other grammatical goofs to pick on and my little jest would slip past unnoticed.


JS said...

If this is, even in part, a story about how black people in Mississippi have historically been the targets of violence from the white-dominated establishment (as the "I heard older people talk about their lives under Jim Crow" bit suggests), it might be helpful to make clear what the characters' racial/ethnic self-identifications are.

Also, letting us know what era the story is set in would be helpful. The whole "seventeen-year-old farm laborer" bit makes it seem like this is a late 19th century/early 20th century story (which would also be in keeping with the "life under Jim Crow" comments).

If Fredrick Miller is a black teenaged farm laborer in 1920s Mississippi, that gives me a lot of significant context that is missing from this version of your query.

And no, a boy does not become a man "after his involvement in the death of an entire family." I mean, yes, that's a terrible thing to live through and I would imagine it ages you, but framing "the death of an entire family" as some kind of "manhood ritual" or rite of passage is creepy in the extreme, especially without context. (If the context is that Fredrick and his best friend are part of an underground assassination squad that targets prominent racists, I guess you could spin it to make them sympathetic anti-heroes, though.)

John N said...

QS, the following made me howl with laughter and I needed a good laugh this afternoon.... but I'm very afraid it involves Budweiser, fart jokes, and World of Warcraft strategy manuals.

Fredrick said...

I am the author the query ADAM'S GIFT and I want to thank you all for your comments. For six years I wrote my book in almost total creative isolation and any feedback, especially constructive feedback, was in short supply. I see now that my query letter needs as much attention as my book did. Your comments reminded me to maintain professionalism throughout the entire writing process.

Robin said...

This query is exhibit 1 on why trying to sound writerly in a query can backfire. This isn't the enticing dust jacket copy you're writing. You can give away the plot here. Don't worry about spoilers.
I love this. M.G.E. I'm trying to wrap my head around the vagueness of the queries and thats why. Everyone wants to keep the best part a secret, but the best part is exactly what the agent needs to see.

Uma said...

Thank you for the great service to writers!

Anonymous said...

Great idea just poor execution on the query. You don't have to reveal the best parts of your story (plot twists etc.), but you must be able give the agent enough specifics that will entice her or him to want to read your story. Striking a balance is hard but it can be done.