Monday, April 26, 2010


Dear Query Shark,

I have recently written a novel and I need comments and revision for it.
(word count 591)

- Prologue -
Dark Tidings

- Chapter One -

contact info:

This is NOT a query. It misses every single thing required in a query letter except contact information.
Although the subject line says you read and followed the directions, I don't believe it.There is not a chance in the world you read 150+ query letters and thought this was what to send.

This is not a form rejection; this would be deleted without a reply.

Start over.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


Dear Query Shark,

Dr. Kate Tilton learns about medical fraud the hard way—as a victim. Her recovery from disfiguring cancer surgery at the hands of a trusted colleague, Dr. Stephen Berg, is complicated by a growing suspicion that a mistake was made. The surgical findings contradict the X-ray and biopsy reports that led to her diagnosis.

Your writing is very passive here. "A growing suspicion" is greatly improved by making it "her growing suspicion"; "a mistake was made" to "her doctor made a mistake."

And correct me if I'm wrong here but medical fraud is commonly used to mean billing errors, not surgical errors. Surgical errors are called malpractice. I'm pretty sure they're two very different things.

When Berg dismisses her concerns as groundless, Kate insists on obtaining a second opinion.

Again, tighten this up: Berg dismisses her concerns (dismisses implies groundless) so Kate gets a second opinion. She doesn't insist on it. Insist implies she's making Berg do something.
She herself gets the second opinion, not Berg.

But when her X-rays and pathology slides vanish she is convinced that she has been the victim of a cover-up in a lucrative scheme to justify unnecessary surgery that she now fears took the life of one her own young patients months earlier.

There are 43 words in that sentence. Too many by half.

Also, if you can diagram this I'll eat my x-rays. I cannot over emphasize the need for simple, clear writing in a query: subject, verb, object. Start with that. Embellish as needed. Don't start with hilariously long convoluted sentences and try to edit them down.

Lacking evidence, she is about to abandon her case against Berg when she recalls that a single lock of hair, suitable for DNA matching, may still be contained inside a tiny locket worn by her deceased patient’s grieving mother.

And here is where you lose me completely. What the heck does DNA matching have to do with unnecessary surgery?

"contained inside" is a classic example of over writing. Either word works fine by itself: you don't need both.

Berg is tried in the girl’s death when DNA testing proves intentional manipulation of surgical evidence in her case resulting in surgery for a nonexistent malignancy. By inference, Kate is presumed to have been a target as well.

Implication not inference. I'll spot you that error this once, but this falls in the homonym category: errors I don't tolerate because writers should know better.

Berg’s conviction enables Kate to begin healing both emotionally and physically.

I am a retired family physician and I am seeking representation for The Bandaged Place, a literary novel that explores the sense of betrayal and outrage experienced by victims of medical fraud and traces one woman’s battle for retribution. It is complete at 80,000 words.

Thank you for your attention and consideration.

Yours truly,

Form rejection

Query word count: 591 (in other words, too long by half) The 250 word limit forces you to focus and pare down. If your query is too long it risks sounding like a synopsis, and that's a disaster.

Dear Query Shark,

Human error is commonly invoked as a defense against the litigation of alleged medical fraud when, in fact, the crime is deliberate and it is motivated by greed. Dr. Kate Tilton learns this the hard way.

Start with your main character: Dr. Kate Tilton learns the hard way that yadda yadda yadda.

In The Bandaged Place, Dr. Tilton reluctantly closes her medical practice in order to relocate with her husband, Peter, to a remote northern New England community where he has accepted a position with an expanding regional trauma center. It isn't the move that concerns Kate; it's the marriage. Peter is characteristically reticent and their relationship is distant. Nevertheless, Kate considers it her sacramental duty to stick it out.

Ok, but what the heck does that have to do with the first paragraph? Answer: nothing.

This is all that expensive medical training and practice rearing its head. As a physician, you learned to write things down in chrono-order, starting with "a patient came into a bar" and write down everything the patient mentions. Integrating all the information is the best way to reach a correct diagnosis.

(QueryShark learned about this by reading Dr. Lucy Hornstein's most excellent book Declarations of a Dinosaur)

This is not true for writing novels and, more to the point here, REALLY not true for writing queries.

You already know what's important (the diagnosis) since you wrote the novel. Focus on the key pieces of information that will entice a reader. I don't need to know the patient has hangnails if the problem is a shark bite to the nose.

Before long Kate finds herself clearing away the overflowing ashtrays and empty shot glasses that litter Peter's desk every morning. He refuses to admit that there is a problem but Kate knows better.

Right here is where the story almost starts.

Peter finally concedes that his partners are under investigation for insurance fraud. He worries that his career may be in jeopardy when he is summoned to testify in court. At the same time, Kate discovers a small lump in her breast.

If this is such a small town, how is it she (and everyone else) don't know the partners are under investigation for insurance fraud.

Kate schedules an examination and a mammogram before she shares any of this with Peter; he has enough to contend with. But when her X-ray report is suspicious for cancer, an urgent referral is made for a biopsy. Kate has no choice but to place her care into the hands of Peter's colleagues. This is a small town; no one else can do it.

And she can't drive to Boston?

When Kate's biopsy confirms an aggressive form of cancer, Peter struggles to be supportive even though he is obsessed with the demands of his job and consumed with worry over the conduct of the trial. Instead, despite her objections, two of Kate's new neighbors muscle in with persistence, grace and humor to support and care for her throughout the ordeal.

This isn't important.

However, Kate's recovery from disfiguring cancer surgery is complicated by a nagging intuition that something is wrong. At first, she is elated to learn that her surgery was a success. But elation turns to doubt and doubt, to despair when it dawns on Kate that the surgical findings are inconsistent with her X-ray and biopsy reports. Although she has no proof, she is certain that a mistake was made--a mistake that led to a grave misdiagnosis and to needless surgery.

This is where the important info is, but again, pare it down until you have one sentence: Kate realized the surgical findings are inconsistent with her x-ray and biopsy reports.

With the support of her friends, Kate summons the courage to confront her surgeon, Dr. Berg, about her concerns. When he dismisses her misgivings as groundless she turns, instead, to a former colleague and friend for a second opinion. But before she can see him Kate discovers that her X-rays and pathology reports have vanished. This confirms her growing conviction that she has been the target of a lucrative cover-up that she fears may have taken the life of one of her own young patients months earlier.

Pare down!

Lacking evidence, though, Kate realizes that it is futile to pursue her case against Dr. Berg and his associates and thereby, to clear her husband of complicity. She is about to admit defeat when she learns that a solitary piece of incriminating evidence may be contained inside the tiny locket of a grieving woman hundreds of miles away, if only she can convince the woman to relinquish it.

We don't need to know the entire story. Final clues, solutions, secret info--none are needed. The purpose of a query is to entice me to read the book, and that's IT.

The Bandaged Place, a literary novel, is complete at 75,000 words.

I'll eat my hat and yours too if this is a literary novel. My first choice is women's fiction, but you might actually have a medical thriller on your hands.

I am a retired physician, having practiced family medicine for over thirty years. Readers who wonder about misconduct within the health care system and its devastating impact on patients and providers alike will welcome this book.

I'm sure you hope they will, but honestly, no one reads novels to learn about misconduct in the health care system. That's what the National Enquirer is for. People read novels for entertainment.

And truthfully, a good novel simply can NOT be an accurate presentation on medical misconduct. Life is not a novel.

I hope you will, too.

Thank you for your attention and consideration.

I'm pretty sure the novel is going to need work after reading this. I don't think you've fully recovered from writing like a doctor. I see this with lawyers too.

Really good novels don't have everything on the page. Really good novels are like spiderwebs: the filaments, words, are important but the space they create, the unspoken, is what makes it beautiful.

You must trust your readers to make intuitive jumps with you and to know some of why things happen. They'll be able to do this easily if you write it by SHOWING, not telling.

This is a form rejection.


Dear QueryShark:

Nora was a mother of four desperate to get her children back. In fact, she stole a plane to do it. My completed 91,000 word contemporary women’s fiction explores resilience amidst tragedy.

This doesn't actually say anything, and the word count is just about the last thing you want to put first in a query letter.

A tempestuous, thrill seeker of French Creole descent, Nora Broussard Greenwood finds herself unfilled as a country club wife and follows her dream of learning how to fly. While soaring the skies, she falls in love with her sexy flight instructor. Trapped in a psychologically and physically abusive marriage, she begins a torrid, star crossed affair with her instructor pilot. Producing a love child, Nora seeks an escape to be with her lover.

One of the biggest problems here is what you tell us about Nora doesn't mesh with what she does. If she's a tempestuous thrill seeker, how is she also an unfulfilled country club wife?

If she's trapped in an abusive marriage where does she get the time, money, or permission to begin flying lessons?

In the Catholic, staid and male dominated world of New Orleans, circa 1960, divorce was unthinkable.

And yet, there she is, thinking about it.

Amidst the racial tensions of the Kennedy era, Nora enlists the help of her black maid and confidant, Mabel, and her best friend in the world, Charlene to help plot her getaway.

When you bring up racial tensions of the Kennedy era, and Nora enlisting the help of her black maid in the same damn sentence you lead me to think racial tension is part of this story. Nothing in the rest of the query supports that. Thus, again, what you tell me, and what you show me are two different things.

When she confronts her powerful, wealthy husband with demands for divorce, she is beaten and cast out of her upper class existence.

Why? Why wouldn't he just laugh at her, and let her stew? He's got money, power and the law on his side. You tell us this stuff about characters in the book but it doesn't feel like what people would really do.

Pregnant and homeless, she returns to her roots finding shelter in the bosom of The French Quarter with those she trusts.

So, she was a torch singer before her marriage, and poor? And she risks it all for a fling with a flight instructor? Why the heck doesn't she just shut up, have the baby, and go on with her life?
That's the choice she makes, not all this other stuff you're talking about here.

Nora saves every penny she makes working nights as a torch singer. She resorts to unfathomable defense tactics to wage battle in the divorce, including kidnapping her own children to get them back.

Unfathomable defense tactics doesn't actually convey anything.

Playing her final trump card, she deploys her aviation skills; secretly flying her ex’s private plane to another state. Locking the prized possession in a hangar, she utilizes it as leverage to regain custody of her children.

Ok, I'm sorry, but what the hell? If I was an abusive husband who was "upper class" and my wife stole my airplane, I'd do one thing: call the cops.

There's no sense of the husband here, and it sounds like he's the antagonist. Why the hell would he want her back?

Realizing the effect baby number five is having on her oldest daughter, Nora makes an excruciating, life altering decision in order to do the most loving thing possible; give her love child away to make things right. Skyward Angel is part of a series of novels depicting strong women of the Deep South.

I'm sorry, but this doesn't strike me as a novel about a strong woman at all. She sounds like she made choices she didn't want to live with and tried to get out of it. She doesn't actually fix her life from what you tell us here.
Published in my professional capacity, I have a Master’s degree in nursing. However, my thesis was a full length screenplay with romantic elements about men in nursing.

Your thesis for a masters in Nursing was a screenplay? Really? And it still doesn't have anything to do with writing novels.

I am a member of Romance Writers of America and would adore having your representation.

ummm...ick? Adoration is pretty much the wrong word here.

I would like the opportunity to send you some sample pages and my complete manuscript.

Thank you for your consideration.

This is a form rejection. There's nothing likable about anyone in this novel to me. I don't get a sense of the characters at all, and the plot seems both cliched and made for Lifetime TV.

(name redacted)
Mom of (name redacted)

oh dear godiva. Don't do this. Not now, not ever. This is a business letter. I know you love your child/ren and are proud of them, but honest to godiva this makes you look bouffant batshit nutso. Leave the kids out of the query. That's a rule.

Dear Query Shark:

To what lengths would a mother resort to get her children back?

One of the cardinal rules of queries is Don't Start with a Rhetorical Question. If you want to break the rules, you have to make it interesting and unusual. This isn't either because the answer is pretty obvious. That makes it a bad start.

Nora stole a plane. Based on a true story, my completed 91,000 word contemporary women’s fiction explores the theme of resilience amidst tragedy .

I don't give a rat's rear end what themes the novel explores. Miss Persnickety, my high school English teacher for all six years I was enrolled in the High School of the Reef pretty much cured me of wanting to discuss themes in novels.

I want to know about the story. As in:
What Happens.

And I really don't care if it's based on a true story. If anything that makes me less likely to read on because, zut alors!, most people's lives don't have much of a plot.

Test readers describe Skyward Angel as a page turner they couldn’t put down.

And here's where we're done. Test readers are like bedbugs. If you have them, I don't want to ever know about it.

It doesn't matter who else read or liked this. The only opinion I value at this point is mine.

A tempestuous, thrill seeker of French Creole descent, Nora Broussard Greenwood follows her dream and learns how to fly. While soaring the skies, she falls in love with her sexy flight instructor. Their star crossed affair produces a love child. Trapped in a psychologically and physically abusive marriage, Nora seeks an escape.

This is actually where your story starts.

In the Catholic, staid and male dominated world of New Orleans, circa 1960, divorce was unthinkable. Amidst the racial tensions of the Kennedy era, Nora enlists the help of her black mammy, Mabel, and her best friend in the world, Charlene to help plot her getaway.

I pray you've never actually addressed any woman as "mammy." Even in 1960, the word had fallen out of use.

When she confronts her powerful, wealthy husband with demands for divorce, she is beaten and cast out of her upper class existence. Pregnant and homeless, she finds shelter in the bosom of The French Quarter with those she trusts.

Nora saves every penny she makes working nights as a torch singer. She resorts to unfathomable defense tactics as leverage.

Like what?

Playing her final trump card, she deploys her aviation skills to regain custody of her other four children.

Uh...she's got four children? Oh, I see, the fourth one is the aviation instructors kid. Got it.

To err is human. We all make mistakes.

Well, sure, that's why God invented QueryShark and whiteout, but what the heck does that have to do with explaining what your novel is about?

Nora must conquer convention and confront the most painful decision of her life to do the most loving thing possible; give her love child away to make things right.

Conquer convention? Also you don't confront decisions. You make them. You confront choices or situations.

People across America will fall in love with Nora.

This is the kind of overwrought telling (rather than showing) that makes me wonder if you've actually read any of the previous entries. Don't tell me how (you HOPE) readers will respond.

A poignant tale of love and loss, Skyward Angel is part of a series of novels depicting strong women of the Deep South.
Telling not showing again.

I am published in my professional capacity and have a Master’s degree in nursing. My thesis was a full length screenplay about men in nursing.

This doesn't have anything to do with writing novels.

As I am a member of Romance Writers of America, I would adore having your representation.

When you start a sentence with "as" you imply a connection to the clause that follows. Wanting me as your agent isn't related to membership in RWA.

I would like the opportunity to send you my complete manuscript. Thank you for your consideration.

So, where's the stolen plane? The most interesting part of the query is never mentioned again.
Form rejection.

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.

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.