Sunday, May 23, 2010


Ms Brenda Chin, Senior Editor

Harlequin Books/MIRA Books
225 Duncan Mill Road
6th Floor
Don Mills, Ontario M3B 3K9

Have I not stomped and screamed and screeched and carried on about this enough? DO NOT put anything in the first line except the salutation when sending your queries by email. DO NOT.

I know where I work. I know my name. Start with what matters: what your book is about.

Dear Ms. Chin:

Country music superstar, Kit Landry, is tired of living her life like a bad Patsy Cline song. Can she save her career and find love before she’s exiled to Branson?

A sexy, contemporary romance, Music City Seduction, is complete at 60,000 words and written for the Harlequin Blaze line.

Start with what the book is about. Log lines are almost universally NOT helpful. Category and word count are housekeeping: put them at the bottom.

Five years ago, Kit ditched her crappy life and moved to Nashville with $200, her guitar, and a notebook full of songs. But living like a rock star has spiraled Kit lower than the suits at her label are willing to continue financing. She’s ordered to shape up or ship out of the limelight.

You're missing some sort of connection between her moving to Nashville and her success. This makes it sound like living on $200 with a guitar and a notebook is living like a rock star.

This is cause you're starting at the wrong place. How she got to Nashville isn't key. The fact that she's successful and "living like a rock star" is. Start there.

Max Butler, on the other hand, is as far from a celebrity as you can get. A Nashville firefighter, he’s looking forward to settling down with the kids, PTA, and a wife in his bed every night. So, when his life suddenly collides with Kit’s, neither of them are prepared for the sexual sizzle between them that just can’t be denied.

I'm seeing a HUGE increase in sentences starting with So. Don't do it. It undercuts the strength of your sentences. It's like "um" when you're speaking. A bad habit you don't notice till you look for it. Go through your manuscript with for So as a whole word and I bet you'll find more than one hundred of them, and every time you take it out, you'll have a stronger sentence.

But, can a regular guy and a country music superstar make it work in the land of the Grand Ole Opry and Elvis?

Join Max and Kit in Music City, as they learn that love isn’t just a word in a country song.

While never awarded a recording contract, I can boast a lifetime of hairbrush singing in the bathroom and performing as the lead singer in a successful, local band for the past nine years. When I’m not performing cover songs (or devouring a Blaze novel), I am an active member of RWA and the (redacted) Romance Writers chapter.

This is actually the best paragraph in the letter because it shows some zest and humor. That's not good, because you really need that zest and humor in the novel. Right now it's pretty bland.

Pursuant to your submission guidelines, I am enclosing the synopsis of my manuscript. Thank you for your time and consideration.


This simply doesn't have enough zing to lift it beyond cliche. One of the problems might be that you're trying to write a short query. Don't. Write an eleven page one instead. Then pare it down. Keep only the zesty phrases and descriptions.

It takes MORE to create less. I honestly don't think you can write a concise captivating query letter without writing about triple the word count first.

You've got all the right pieces; they're just not very flavorful right now.

Form rejection


Dear Query Shark:

Granny Landry used to say, “Don’t borrow trouble, you’ll get your own soon enough.”

Kit Landry has her fair share of trouble these days. Five years ago, she ditched her crappy life and moved to Nashville, TN with $200, her guitar, and a notebook full of songs.

Waiting tables paid the bills while she stomped the sidewalk trying to get a break. Kit was one of the lucky ones, and soon she signed with a label and her career took off. For a while, she had it all – right up until her movie star boyfriend dumped her for an Oscar winner that could boost his “Q” factor and Kit decided to have a pity party and invite all the tabloids.

The “suits” at the label weren’t happy (apparently you can only fall apart on the front page if your last name is Spears) and now her contract renewal is based upon one condition – staying out of trouble.

Why is suits in quotes? Aren't they suits? Suits is a perfectly correct use of the word to mean "the guys who run the money side of things" No quotes.

Quotes imply something is NOT what you say it is. Example: Oh yes, Cruella DeVill is a real "dog lover"

Also, unless you live on a different planet with a different Nashville or music industry, this does not ring true to me. Suits care about one thing: money. Publicity and notoriety drive the money machine. No suit in his/her right mind is going to insist a musician be LESS visible.

So, you have a problem. If she needs to stay out of trouble, there has to be a REAL reason. I'd suggest she's either popular in a market that requires correct behaviour (Christian music) or the insurance guys won't bond her for a tour (which is where the money is made) for some reason.

You simply can't say "the suits tell her to stay out trouble or else" cause you need it for a starting point in the book.

I'm perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief for flying dragons...but if you set your book in a world I know, it MUST feel like how that world works.

Max Butler is content to leave the music business alone. Although he loves serving in the Nashville Fire Department, his brush with Music City left him with a bad taste in his mouth – and a divorce decree in hands.

Now, after years of hard work, he’s in line for a coveted promotion and nothing is going to get in his way. Once that block is checked, he can settle down with the life he wants: kids, PTA, and a wife in his bed every night. All he has to do is stay out of trouble.

This is where you really need to start. All the preceding is backstory and set up. You can use a few well-chosen words in the following paragraphs so we understand they both need to stay out of trouble.

Trapped in a burning studio one night, Kit just wanted someone to rescue her – she really didn’t want to die in the bathroom like Elvis.

Elvis died of a drug overdose not a fire. The comparison really doesn't work. You're reaching for humor here, when you don't need to. No one wants to die in a fire.

But, when she got a good look at the handsome firefighter, she wondered if she had died and gone to heaven. She’d love to see more of Max, but her historical bad taste in men, have convinced the label that “hot man” and “trouble” are synonymous for Kit.

When does the fire occur in the book? If it's anytime AFTER chapter 3, you've got too much windup.

Max is a huge fan of Kit – she’s his dream girl and everyone knows it. Two weeks after the fire, he sees her again at a commendation ceremony and his buddies bet that he can’t get her to sleep with him. Kit overhears the wager, but not the terms, and before he knows it, she’s shaking on it and backing the bet. Max would love to fulfill his “Kit Landry” fantasy, but this mess has – you guessed it - trouble written all over it.

They couldn’t be more different. Kit leaves for her summer tour in less than a month and Max just wants a normal life. But, when the sexual sizzle between them is impossible to ignore, they agree on a solution: Three weeks. No strings. Great sex.

Going out on tour is like running a marathon--a marathon a day, every day of the tour. Musicians getting ready to go out on tour in less than a month are in rehearsal daily, working out at the gym, getting costumes fitted. They're WORKING. Hard! It's not the time I'd associate with a fling.

But, Kit has a problem. Someone is leaking information about her to the press and none of it is designed to make her look good. When Max gets dragged into it, suddenly he’s involved in a life he doesn't want, with a girl who’s quickly becoming so much more than a fantasy.

Join Max and Kit on a journey where they learn that normal is overrated and love really can be just like a country song.

A contemporary romance, Looking for Normal is complete at 60,000 words and available at your request.

Of course it is. You'd read it aloud to me on the subway if I asked but let's save that for the book trailer.

I am active member of RWA and the (redacted) Romance Writers chapter. This is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


This is a form rejection: I don't believe the premise. It feels like the characters are where they are cause you need them there, not cause it would actually be like that organically. Of course, this is why reading queries is so subjective. My opinion is based on what I think I know...and maybe I'm wrong. (A shocking idea, but it's happened)

What would make me think I was wrong is if you mention you're a touring musician. The value of a writer's bio in a query letter is for just these moments. As I'm reading along, and I think, "oh this isn't how that stuff works" and then I see you're actually in that industry, I'd give you the benefit of the doubt.

But right now, form rejection.


Anonymous said...

An annoying habit of starting sentences with "But, [etc]." No comma after the "but."

Josin L. McQuein said...

Sheesh. This is a rambler. It reads like you couldn't decide what needed to go into the query so you just kept putting stuff in.

Don't do that.

Listen to the Shark on the bit about Kit staying out of trouble. If she's news, then she's in the public eye. People will buy her stuff even if it's just to mock it. Either way the suits make money. Money makes a happy suit. Most likely what they'd do is spin the coverage (seriously, NO producer in his/her right mind is going to publicly attach consequences to an artist getting dumped. The PR would swing them straight into the unemployment line.)

As for Max, what does being a firefighter have to do with disliking the music industry? It's doubtful that a firefighter would be in the same circles as many musicians. And why does he need to stay out of trouble? As long as he's not starting the fires he sets, who cares?

The Elvis joke doesn't work on any level. There's no correlation, and any joke you have to defend or explain just didn't work. Get rid of it.

Watch your tenses, you slipped into past tense. Also check your singular vs. plurals. ("Her historical bad taste" is singular, it "has" convinced, not "have" convinced.)

This is a very passive query, with a lot of state of being verbs to tell the reader what's going on and very little action to show it. You've robbed the query of your voice.

You hit the reader over the head with the "wants a normal life" angle, and the "stay out of trouble", but there's nothing to back it up. At least nothing that makes sense.

I'd also cut the attempt at a conversational tone toward the end. "- you guessed it -". What you did was highlight just how predictable your plot is.

Kate Halleron said...

I like the idea that Kit would be in the Christian/Gospel music industry rather than the CW industry. Hard-livin' is kind of expected in CW. Can't imagine what kind of trouble a Country singer could get into that a suit would object to, and the CM industry also has a major presence in Nashville, so you wouldn't have to change locales.

I'm not usually a romance reader, but there was something about this query I liked - the voice, maybe. I think I might enjoy spending some time with these characters.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I seldom read contemporary romance but I almost never pick up one that has an entertainer or sports figure as a lead character. It's too difficult to see one of them as a sympathetic character I can route for. In this case I see a successful musician apparently being a brat and then still not behaving despite being ordered to do so. Perhaps that's only my personal prejudice.

Unknown said...

What if the suits were actually pressuring her to be wild and grab publicity, but her new hunky firefighter wants her to be a real adult.

Lehcarjt said...

I thought this did a good job of explaining the book and I didn't hate what I read. I agree on the backstory and the length issues though.

I've only read once Harlequin book in my life and the one thing I remember clearly about it is that the plot was 'soap operaish' when it came to the details. This query felt the same, and so my suggestion would be to research (after tightening) agents who rep that direction.

Good luck!

M. G. E. said...

Never admit it's your first novel! Not up front anyway. If they think they have to break in a newb that just raises the bar. I want my first query to look like it came from a seasoned pro. Mentioning you're new at this seems to be begging for mercy and asking for a pass.

There's a strange dynamic here as well:
"But, when she got a good look at the handsome firefighter, she wondered if she had died and gone to heaven."

You make it sound like she's in the middle of a fire, in comes a firefighter sans helmet, and rather than fearing for her life she's taken by his rugged good looks--in the middle of a raging inferno. That image is the height of melodrama. I doubt the book presents it quite that way, but that's how you've made it look.

The plot feels so convenient, contrived, that's my larger problem. You can reduce the coincidence factor by having the starlet be like a child actor segueing into music as she reaches adulthood instead of being discovered (that could be a whole story to itself).

And a firefighter who's a former music executive? Just screams coincidence. Make him a firefighter with an MBA who applies general business smarts to help her career and that may work better without the "look at me, I'm a plot device" factor.

Janet Reid said...

"Never admit it's your first novel" is not correct.

You'll notice the QS does not highlight that as an error in any of the queries.

Ethereal_buddha said...

MGE-I didn't get that Mike was a music executive. Then again, I don't think that was well explained, nor did it really have to be in the query.
Better still, leave out the backstory. Something tells me you have it in the book too. Don't.
Shark's comment about 'It feels like the characters are where they are cause you need them there, not cause it would actually be like that organically.' That worries me for my own book. I have a couple of characters like that, but I need them to help advance my story.
Then again, I'm not going to submit it or anything. It's just to pass the time until I can get another job.
Other than the backstory, I thought it was a good query. Just tighten it up a bit.

Stephanie Barr said...

I'm not sure I find the plot so outlandish or ridiculous for the series romance world. It seems like I've read a number of novels with similarly implausible scenarios.

I think though, that humor and voice can make it stand out from the pack, but it has to work in spades and is unlikely to be visible in a query. Not sure how to fix that except by maybe focusing on what's great about the story instead of what's broken.

I also have to add that, though I read many of these types of novels in my noncritical youth, I wouldn't read one now. And that is likely a side effect of the tendency toward contrived plots and characters acting out of character in such novels. The premise doesn't speak to me, but then I'm clearly not the intended audience.

Anonymous said...

"She’d love to see more of Max, but her historical bad taste in men, have convinced the label that “hot man” and “trouble” are synonymous for Kit."

This sentence would not have appeared in a query that had been properly proofread. Always, always, proofread.

I count ten cliches in the first three paragraphs. Not trying to be mean, it's just that the cliches really started becoming noticeable. There were so many of them. It would tend to make me worry that the manuscript might have a similar problem.

Spiced Apple Eye said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rebecca Christiansen said...

"Hot man" is synonymous for Kit? That made me laugh out loud. The way you phrased that makes it sound like the execs greet her with "Hey, Hot Man, how's it going?"

Sara J. Henry said...

Pet peeve: using ZIP code abbreviations for states in text (and Nashville is one of those cities for which you usually don't have to put the state - like Boston and Los Angeles - people sort of know where they are).

M. G. E. said...

QS: " 'Never admit it's your first novel' is not correct.

You'll notice the QS does not highlight that as an error in any of the queries."

Aye, but the Shark does mention that it often takes 3-4 novels before an author 'gets it' and is likely to produce commercial quality fiction.

Might not other agents be similarly prejudiced? Can admitting it's your first novel never negatively impacts a query's efficacy?

And if it can't harm a query's chances, is it actually helping at all? And if it's not helping it can be cut.

I'll certainly defer to the Shark on this issue, those are just my concerns.

Terri Coop said...

Country western chicks are hot, I could see the premise being popular here in the good old midwest (right next to the NASCAR romances)

However, I'm in agreement with the whole premise seeming contrived.

My husband was a firefighter. He's also a hunk. However, I'd have never known it if I'd met him while he was in 50 pounds of dress-out gear and airpack.

Kit would have been unceremoniously dumped on the EMTs while hero went back for more rescuing and firefighting.

A simple fix, the press gets wind of the details of the fire and bugs the suits to set up a photo-op where Kit visits the firehouse and gives a thank-you donation to the children's charity.

Eyes lock. He didn't know the girl he rescued was Kit (he'd only been told that some Nashville type was coming for some free press), and she didn't know that the fireman who rescued her is hot enough to set off the sprinklers.

Mayhem ensues . . . and there is happily ever after.

Unknown said...

I like the premise too, though the query needs work. I think the latter part (hooking up before she goes on tour) could fly at one of the romance lines where real life events get to be a little blurry when it comes to accuracy.

Janet Reid said...

M.G.E. When a querier says "this is my first novel" I do not assume it's the first novel s/he has written. I assume (as do most agents) that the querier has not published a novel as yet.

I do believe most good writers have three or four novels under the bed, so called, trunk novels. I don't ask, they don't tell. We're all MUCH happier.

Unknown said...

About the unpublished author bit. I completely agree that it's bad form to withhold that information from a prospective agent.
Personally, I have four MS in the works and two completed, but I am still an unpublished author. This is my first attempt on the query circuit and I let agents know.

The agent has his/her work cut out for them to develope a new author and prepare them for a first time sale just like I have as a first time author to uphold my end of the trade. If you withhold this information from the beginning, how do you think the agent will feel about the situation once they fall in love with your ms?

Yes, they love the work, but wouldn't it be better for all parties if everyone knew all the details. No hard feelings this way and it is just plain professional courtesy.

Janet Reid said...

You guys have it exactly backwards. It's whether you HAVE been published before that's important to know.

The reason is that if you have sales figures, or titles on Bookscan, agents need to know.

How many unpubbed novels you have under the bed is absolutely irrelevant to your query.

Uma said...

Everything could be forgiven if the romantic pairing was more exciting and plausible!!

Anonymous said...

Certainly I had written three or four novels before one got published. Most of the published writers I know did. Most? All.

If you saw Jim C. Hines's recent survey on first novel sales: he obtained similar data. This isn't an agents' prejudice but simple fact.

For a published writer, previous sales figures can be an issue when negotiating new novel sales-- and not a small issue, believe me. An unpublished writer doesn't have this problem.

Being unpublished isn't an embarrassing, unmentionable disease. It's just a stage every published writer has passed through.

Uma said...

"You guys have it exactly backwards." That's why we love your blog, you're our only hope, even if you do find most of us hopeless! I can't wait to send you my novel if only to have you fling it right back at me...if so much care goes into your rejections....then I wonder what its like to have a Yes from you.

Thomas Sinclair said...

"Waiting tables paid the bills while she stomped the sidewalk trying to get a break." This sounds like just about every struggling artist in the world. I don't get a sense of who Kit is.

I agree with another commenter that this is all very passive, and that keeps me from getting a sense of Kit. More active verbs about what she does could add dimension to Kit, and make your voice come through. This feels pretty flat to me. Granted, I do not read romance, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about.

Alicia A said...

In the writers defense, there is a such thing as too much bad publicity. Think Lindsey Lohan. She got so out of control she became unreliable and no one wanted to work with her. When Britney Spears lost control she shaved her head and lost her kids. Maybe the suits were trying to clean up Kit's image by removing her from the spotlight?

Kate said...

I'm not an expert on the country music industry, but it's almost the next best thing to the Christian/Gospel genre. Country listeners like their artists wholesome. I'd say the industry is definitely based on traditional values. If you consider the biggest names in country music--George Strait, Tim McGraw, etc.--they're not tabloid fodder.

I think behavior unbecoming of a Nashville star could produce some wrist-slapping from the execs--but I'm not sure a breakup is enough. Kit needs to do something that could seriously offend her fan-base to get the suits on her back.

Christina Auret said...

I have no problem with implausible plots when you make me believe what I'm reading. If I think the way the character reacts to the situation is believable, I don't care how bizarre the situation is.

I really think less information would be better. Not just in regards to cutting the back story form the query. You can't make me believe all of your story in 250 words (and you are slightly over that limit as things stand.)

On the Plus Side:
I liked the idea. It sounds like it could be fun.
I also really liked this line a lot:
"...with a girl who’s quickly becoming so much more than a fantasy."
It gives me the impression that he is seeing her faults and loving her for them.

Joseph L. Selby said...

A poster arguing with Janet Reid about what the shark said and meant made me snort water up into my nose. Ow!!!

Too funny.

_*rachel*_ said...


Unknown said...

All Kit needs to do to offend her fan-base and get in trouble with her producer is to go political and make a few comments a la Dixie Chicks. That'll do the trick fast enough.

Plausibility aside, the query itself is closer to the length of a mini-synopsis, and can be shortened.

Congratulations for being brave enough to jump in the Shark Tank!

M. G. E. said...

Joseph said:
"A poster arguing with Janet Reid about what the shark said and meant made me snort water up into my nose. Ow!!!

Too funny."

In my defense, I knew Janet Reid is the Shark. I simply chose to refer to her by title. Don't mistake that for ignorance of the Shark's true identity.

Joseph said...

I dunno. This query goes on setting up forever and when she finally got to the plot she stopped. I mean, obviously Max finds himself in a world he never knew, hilarity ensues, Kit must choose between the life of a celebrity and a humble life, boy and girl end up together, the end.

I dunno. It's a funny idea for a story if you take it even harder in the Lindsay Lohan direction. Maybe you could sell it as a script to Lindsay Lohan. I could see it on ABC Family minus the whole cocaine addiction. Maybe she's addicted to caffeine pills like Jessie from Saved By the Bell.

You should make Kit Amish. Amish novels are hot.

CindyLou Foster said...

The length of the query is my biggest concern. A query should be 250-350 words. That is three or four paragraphs at the most. It is very difficult to condense the story into five or six sentences, but that is what needs to happen. I want the meat of the story, not everything else.

Marian Perera said...

This query is 571 words long. Maybe that's why it felt like a synopsis to me - that, and all the details about the main characters.

Unknown said...

The problem with the query is it's all back story that stops where it should begin:

A CW singer has a fling with a firefighter.

You could basically reduce the whole query to that point (more stylishly written).

There's a million directions that could go from there: The fire fighter can't stand all the sudden attention. The singer gets miffed because he thinks her life is frivolous compared to his, and she starts to think this as well.

The whole "bad publicity" seems unlikely to me. Does anyone really think a CW singer would turn off her fans because she was having an affair with a hunky firefighter after her moviestar boyfriend dumped her?

I think her fans would be cheering her. She would be a tabloid darling for dating a "real hero." If anything this seems like the kind of thing her promoters would set up (which could be a premise too) rather than avoid.

There are a million viable ways this setup could go (and a million viable ways this setup has been done). I think the writer just chose the wrong conflict.

JS said...

I don't get this at all, and it seems very implausible to me that a record label would not want one of their artists to have a very public romance with THE HANDSOME FIREFIGHTER WHO SAVED HER LIFE.

That is publicity you can't buy. That's a story in People magazine.

Even if the artist had previously had horrible, horrible publicity, having a romance with the handsome firefighter who saved her life would be a publicists' dream.

To be honest, I would like that story a lot more--Kit and Max trying to figure out what they really mean to each other in a whirlwind of tabloid gossip, which is the last thing either of them wants in their lives.

(Am not in the country music field, but know some people who are. The husband is in the acoustic pop/folk field, where people would set themselves on fire to get publicity like Kit's.)

Cole Howard said...

I'm not sure how you fit that much story in 60K words. The only way I can figure is if you're as brief in the novel as your are in the query regarding the back story, summing up five years in a paragraph and a half. The premise is interesting, but if you fit that much in 60K words then it will be as rushed as an intimate moment for a man suffering from premature ejaculation. Pare down the window. said...

yet once again, Ms Shark, you have demonstrated, your honed skills as a story critic.

I am very impressed that you asked where in the story the fire is (uh, forgive me:) set.

This story, I feel, might best open with the fire or the commendation ceremony. In which case, so should the query?

Stephanie Barr said...

At first, I had to scroll down to see if this was the revised one.

It was.

I felt like there was no story there, no voice, no life, just an introduction of characters. Whatever makes this story stand out, I missed it.

Unknown said...

"One of the problems might be that you're trying to write a short query. Don't. Write an eleven page one instead. Then pare it down. Keep only the zesty phrases and descriptions."

OK, now I'm confused. In an earlier post, you said it was preferable to write short declarative sentences rather than write long ones and then pare them down.

So which is it? Or is it that you should write a plethora of short sentences and then pick the ones that zing?

Thanks for the clarification.