Saturday, May 29, 2010

#162-revised 5x FTW

Dear Query Shark,

Patrick was just seven when he fell into the well. He died never knowing why his brother, Michael, did not return to save him.

Decades later, unyielding grief and remorse beckon Michael back to the farm where Pat’s life ended. He hopes to find closure. Instead, he finds Patrick.

Patrick is still only seven. Still playful and mischievous. He misses Michael. Does not care why Michael left him. He simply wants to be together again. Like it was.

He wants Michael to join him on the other side. But since Michael found Linda, his childhood sweetheart, he now has every reason to live.

He refuses Patrick. Pat makes a game of helping his brother to crossover. And if Linda gets in the way, no problem. She can play, too.

Michael wants to do the right thing. He owes it to Patrick. He just doesn’t know what that it is yet. He only hopes it does not include losing his girlfriend, his life or his brother a second time around.

Abandoned ABANDONED is a supernatural suspense just over 100k words.

Book titles are in all caps. I don't think I've mentioned that on QueryShark before but they are.

Thank you for your time.

With apologies to the OldSpice Man: look at your first query. Now look at this. Now look at your second query. Now look at this.

You've given us a reason to care about both characters; we're sympathetic to both their situations. That's a very VERY good thing. In the first query you sounded like a movie announcer: that's gone. Michael sounded gutless and stupid; that's gone.

This is a nice revision. A VERY nice revision.

I don't represent this kind of suspense novel (they scare the cracophony out of me) but I think you've got a query that will get your pages read. Make sure you apply what you learned here to the pages.

Good luck!


Dear Query Shark,

Patrick was just seven when he fell into the well. He died never knowing why his brother, Michael, did not come back to save him.

Starting with Patrick is a very interesting change from the previous iterations. I like it a lot.

Three decades later, grief and shame beckon Michael back to the place where Pat’s life ended. There he Michael hopes to find closure and self-forgiveness. Instead, he finds Patrick.

Chop everything you don't need. You'd be surprised how many extra words are in first/second/third drafts.

Pat is unmoved by Michael’s regrets. He does not want a confession, nor does he care how Michael, as a confused boy, fearful of punishment for playing near the well, made so grave an error so grave in judgment. He simply wants to be together again. He asks Michael to join him on the other side. When Michael refuses, Pat makes a game of facilitating his crossover any way he can.

You're on the right track here, but I'd suggest more honing. Honing means reduce compound sentences to simple sentences in the places that will boost the energy of the writing. Honing means taking out every single word you can while holding the integrity of the sentence. Honing means choosing every word carefully.

Consider this: Patrick doesn't want a confession; he doesn't care why Michael left him alone in the well to die. He simply wants to be together again. Like it was. He wants Michael to join him on the other side. But Michael, inexplicably, refuses. Pat makes a game to get his brother to crossover...isn't this fun!

What we need here is to see Patrick is still 7. He's not actually trying to kill his brother, just have his brother join him.

To end this, Michael must learn to see the world through Pat’s eyes, understand that bonds of blood run deep, and the love between brothers never dies.

This paragraph veers off into movie announcer phrases. It's not as sharp or focused as what came before.

Abandoned is a supernatural suspense just over 100k words.

Thank you for your time,

This is getting better, but you're not there quite yet. Revise. I promise revisions will not actually kill you.


Dear Query Shark,

Nine-year-old Michael loved his younger brother, Patrick. He cried the day they buried his empty casket. But the river had not claimed the boy’s body as everyone believed. It lay, instead, at the bottom of a well. Michael should know. He saw Pat fall in.

There's no urgency here, no sense of panic or chaos. It's all very bloodless and tidy. I suggest you shorten the sentences, and reorder them to build tension:

Michael and his brother are playing where they aren't supposed to. Patrick falls into the well. Michael is afraid he'll get in trouble for that and directs rescuers to the river first. Reasoning as only a nine-year-old can, that the rescuers will find Patrick, he is devastated when they don't. And so on.

Dreading punishment for playing near the forbidden site, Michael tells would-be rescuers Patrick disappeared by the river. He assumes search teams will fan out and find his brother. They do not. He becomes frightened, confused and overwhelmed in the chaos that follows. Concerned for his welfare, caretakers whisk the traumatized boy away. He looks back from the taxi, his silent shout sealing Patrick’s fate forever.

Years later, psychological wounds have reshape Michael’s memories of the event, cleansing the worst of the guilt from his mind. Out of money and work, he returns to the old farmhouse where Patrick died and finds the place in a state of disrepair. Despite its condition, his circumstances force him to stay.

We don't feel anything here. There's no emotion in the writing, no sense of tension or foreboding.

Within days, strange occurrences manifest about the premises. Michael suspects teenage pranksters, but police find no evidence to support his claims. Only when no one else will listen, does Patrick’s spirit reveal himself to Michael.

Patrick is still only seven-years-old. He does not understand that Michael has grown, and all he wants is to be with his brother again. He begs Michael to join him. When Michael refuses, Patrick endeavors to hasten his crossing.

Unfortunately, no one else can see Patrick, and this dangerous interaction between living and dead has everyone thinking Michael is going insane.

Things can never be as they were. Yet even in death, brotherly bonds remain inviolable. Convincing Patrick to let him live will not be easy. To do so, Michael will have to reconcile whitewashed memories, admit culpability and accept the unpleasant truth that sometimes even young boys can make grave mistakes. If unable, then Patrick may have the last say in what penance Michael will pay for abandoning him so long ago.

Abandoned is a paranormal suspense a bit over 100k words.

Thank you for your time.

You've got the structure down, and the bones of the query in place, but now you need the writing to show conflict, tension and some suspense.

Right now, there's nothing that compels me to read on. The query is flat. It needs to be energized.It's like soup before you add the salt; good but not zesty.

Dear Query Shark,

Nine-year-old Michael loved his younger brother Patrick. He cried the day they buried his empty casket. But the river had not claimed the boy’s body as everyone believed, instead, it lay at the bottom of a well. Michael should know. He saw Pat fall in and did nothing to save him.

This is actually a very nice start. I'd advise breaking the third sentence (But the river) in to two here: believed. Instead,

Psychological wounds reshaped Michael’s recollections, cleansing him of memories too difficult to bear. Years later, out of money and work, he returns to the old farmhouse where Patrick died, finding it in a state of disrepair. Despite its condition, his circumstances force him to stay.

This is nicely creepy.

Within days, curious happenings begin to manifest in and around the house. Michael suspects teenage pranksters are to blame, but police find no evidence to support his claims. Only when no one else will listen to his complaints, does Patrick’s spirit reveal himself to Michael.

I'm pretty hooked by now.

The spirit appears Patrick is still only seven-years-old and indifferent to Michael’s maturity. He has anguished alone for so long, and now all he wants is to be with his brother again. He begs Michael to cross over, reasoning it is only right since he was responsible for his death.

But Michael does not remember it that way, and does not want to cross over. Neither does he remember how clever, resourceful and tenacious his little brother can be.

Patrick attempts to hasten Michael’s crossing, each time failing, though edging him closer to remembering the truth.

Unfortunately for Michael, no one else can see Patrick, and this dangerous interaction between living and dead has everyone believing Michael is going insane.

Whatever the case, deep down Michael knows that if he loves his brother, he must reconcile his memories, lift the denial that insulates his pain and admit his culpability in Pat’s death. If not, he may spend the rest of his life trying to break free of Patrick’s spirit, or worse–die trying.

Abandoned is a paranormal suspense a bit over 100k words.

For your consideration, I can provide the manuscript in Word doc. or print version.

Best regards,

The central problem here is that I don't much care if Michael dies or recovers. He let his brother die, and said nothing. Patrick's revenge seems pretty sensible to me. I wouldn't mind being able to haunt a few ne'er do wells from the grave once I'm on the other side.

We'll need to see more of why Michael is a sympathetic character to want to read this.

This arrived as a big bloc o'text AND your emails to me are on some sort of arty background and start about two inches from the top of the email viewing window. I simply cannot emphasize enough that you MUST send your emails without ANY decorative touches. If I hadn't scrolled down, I would have thought the email was blank.

Form rejection, but this is much much improved from the initial version.

Abandoned- Horror.
Word count: 119,500

Don't do this. For starters, horror is a VERY tough category right now. I can count on one fin the number of agents who sell it. You're much better off enticing me with the story first, and letting me deal with the bad news about category later. Same with word count. Let me love the story, then drop the bad news that it's 119K (and yes, I think that's bad news but not everyone agrees)

Dear Query Shark,

The house is haunted. He’s been told that, but Michael Riley has bigger things to worry about. Besides losing his job, his grandmother, and now possibly the old farmhouse he inherited, Michael's dark secret threaten to drive him insane.

This is cliche. I'd stop reading right here. I've jumped up and down and screamed for 160+ queries about starting with the problem/choice/dilemma the main character faces. Start with action.

When Michael’s little brother, Patrick, disappeared thirty years ago, no one expected to see the boy again. Now Patrick is back, and as Gramma Riley promised, he knows what scares you.

This sounds exactly like the voice over for a movie "Patrick's back, and he knows what scares you." There are no telling details, no indications of character.

From the beginning, things are not right. Noises down the hall, footsteps in the night, lights turning off and on by themselves, all point to something supernatural at work. Still, Michael is in denial.

Michael sounds like an idiot here. There's an entire category of characters called "TSTL (too stupid to live)" and they are the ones who look at what's clearly A Problem and say "gosh, it must be mice in the attic" This is not interesting. This is farce.

When an old neighbor, Roland, shows up, things get even more bizarre. An accomplice in Patrick’s disappearance, Roland claims that Patrick’s ghost haunts him, and wishes him dead. But Roland is not well, psychologically speaking. While Michael has been quietly suppressing his demons, letting false memories replace unpleasant ones, Roland has been living an endless nightmare until the lines between real and imaginary have blurred into one.

Things were bizarre before? Patrick disappeared on purpose? If Patrick isn't dead, how can his ghost haunt Roland?

Again, this is all smoke and mirrors, nothing substantive.

Enter Linda Maher, Michael’s childhood sweetheart. Romance again blossoms between them and Michael soon realizes how quickly a ghost can ruin a good thing. Linda is not part of the conspiracy that took place so many years ago, but if she gets in his way, Patrick is not above helping her cross over.

I thought Patrick wasn't dead?

This presents Michael with difficult choice. Should he forget about Patrick and start a new life with the girl of his dreams, or risk losing her by putting to rest once and for all his little brother and the demons that have waited three decades for his return?

Finally, we get to the choice! Notice it's in the last paragraph...the very last place it should be! I still don't quite get what the choice is other than the very general Girlfriend or Dead Brother. Me, I'd pick the girlfriend, but I'm an earth sign so I like things that are real.

Best regards,

This is a form rejection. There's nothing here to hold onto. I have no sense of what Michael is about, why his brother wants to scare him, or why, given the chance, Michael wouldn't run off to Vegas with the girlfriend.

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.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

#160-the director's cut

Many of you made comments about #160-For the Win that got me thinking. I've copied and pasted some of your comments here and replied in blue.

This isn't a "you're wrong, I'm right" recap. I think your comments are interesting and raise valid points. Think of this as Bite 2!

I didn't understand the pertinence of the first two sentences in the second paragraph. What does Beatrice's love of insects have to do with the rest of the story?

It kept niggling at me as I read the rest of the query so much so that, when there was nothing to tie back, I felt disappointed.

I think Beatrice's love of insects is less about plot than it is about character. I think it's an excellent way to show (not tell!) that Beatrice is interested in things around her, that she is curious, and she's probably pretty smart. And it says all that quite elegantly.

This is a much more useful description of a character than age, eye and hair color, and I see that a LOT in queries.

Do 15 year-olds get jobs as nannies? Is that the same as a baby sitter? I guess that's my only question? I just jump into Mary Poppins and such like.

This wasn't a problem for me. It's clear her job is taking care of James during the summer. If, after reading it, her job should be called something else, well then we'll fix it.

This is a classic example of missing the forest for the trees. This is a good query despite this lack of certainty in correct job title. It's the WRITING I respond to. I can fix almost anything but voice so I'm not worried if she's a nanny or a babysitter.


I guess I'm also wondering, if they need a babysitter to watch James during the day over the summer, what chance Beatrice has to overhear. If both parents are home, why do they need her? If they're self-employed/work from home, that sounds like a more useful tidbit than her love of insects (cool as that may be).

they're not, well, why would she hang around the house once they're home?

When would she get the chance to eavesdrop? What is James in danger from? Depression? Or is his life in danger? Where did that come in? I guess it didn't all hang together so well for me as it did for some.

Actually your questions allow me to make a point: you don't need to drown us in the whys and wherefores, particularly in a query letter.

If you grab me, I'll generally go along for the ride. It's only when something really doesn't work logically at all that I'm catapulted out of the story.

Remember, I'm not reading your queries in my slush pile with an idea of critiquing them, or analyzing them, or anything for anything other than answering Do I Want To Read This Book?

Yes, these questions will need to be answered, but that can come in the novel, not the query. The only (ONLY) purpose of a query is to entice me to read pages, and have your deets so I can ask for more.

I loved it, but 44,000 words is surely more of a novella length?

This is YA and maybe even MG (middle grade) The word count isn't a problem.


I guess it's not important to mention setting? Have no idea where this story is set or even on what continent. Is it better not to mention a specific setting and just keep it general? One pitch I made last week and got a 3-chapter hit the following day, I mentioned "a small Pennsylvania town" in the first paragraph.

For my novels set in Malaysia, I clearly state that fact.

If you need setting to make the query hold together logically, then yes you need it.
If you need setting to entice me to read on, then yes you need it.

If you don't, or don't, then you don't.

There are no hard and fast rules on what you absolutely have to have. You need what works. What works can vary.

That's one of the reasons I'm so adamant about reading the Query Shark archives. If you read 160+ queries and their revisions, you'll see what works and what doesn't, and develop a sense for it in your queries.

It's a little like learning to drive. When you first started you had to run down the checklist in your head: start engine, engage gear, look in rear view mirror and so on.

Now you can do all that while texting, eating, and shouting at the idiot driver next to you. Driving is second nature.

Read enough QueryShark and you can shout at the idiot driver next to you while composting your most excellent query.

Wow, maybe this is why I can't get an agent to reply favorably to my queries. I guess I just don't get it. When I first read this query, I thought the "Win" was for worst query of the day.Sure it was direct. I'll give you that, but I thought it was all over the place.

Stephine Barr is right. So Beitris likes bugs. Big deal. How will that further the story? There is an extortion taking place. I like that, but what makes Beitris think James in danger? And if he is in danger, how could Willem be a "real problem"? All he wants to do is date her. When they fight, what's the matter with confiding in her girlfriends? They sure seem eager enough to talk to her about boys.

I'm sorry, but if this 15 year old spends so much time worrying about Darfur and climate change, maybe her plate if full enough.

At 44,000 words, I don't believe it's long enough to build, cultivate and resolve the mélange of complexities introduced in this query. I don't mean to pounce on this author, but come on QueryShark. Is this what you really want from us?


Don't over think this. A query isn't a road map for a book, it's an invitation to read one.
This one works.

This query has nothing that resembles a melange of complexities to me. I think it's actually pretty elegant writing. You are of course, free to disagree.

Monday, May 17, 2010

#160-for the win!

Dear Ms. Reid,

Beatrice Thompson is fifteen, worried about Darfur and climate change, and quickly getting in over her head with her summer job.

Beatrice Thompson loves insects. She loves watching their behavior, capturing them, and pinning them. It is summer break and Beatrice is working as a nanny. James Anderson, the boy she’s watching, is depressed. She wants to figure out why, so she begins eavesdropping on his parents. What she discovers is more than just a couple contemplating a divorce. Instead she realizes they are being extorted, but she can’t figure out why. She also cannot understand what they’re being asked to give up. So she keeps snooping around.

If the issues with the summer job aren’t enough, she’s got a real problem: her best friend Willem has been acting strange. Her girlfriends are convinced he wants to date Beatrice, but she won’t jeopardize their friendship for anything. When she and Willem fight about her nosiness, Beatrice has no one left to confide in about the Andersons’ strange behavior.

Beatrice makes a connection about wetland development that may explain everything, but she has to link all the clues in time to protect James.

A young adult novel, The Ordinary Life of the Insect Collector, is complete at 44,000 words.

Thank you for your time.

Oh heck yes you're sending this to me.
Right now.

In fact, why are you still reading...send! Send!

What I like: it's concise, it shows me what the book is about, gives me a sense of the problem and what choice Beatrice makes. There's no TELLING me what kind of book this it, just SHOWING me.

This is a very very good query.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Dear QueryShark:

When an ex-girlfriend dies of a heroin overdose, auto mechanic Mark Allister receives custody of a seven-year-old daughter he never knew existed.

I'm a very very big fan of starting a query letter with the name of the main character. I'm also in favor of starting query letters with sentences, not clauses. I think it gives the query more energy.

Consider this: Mark Allister gets custody of a seven-year-old-daughter he never knew existed when an ex-girlfriend dies of a heroin overdose.

Lara Allister is beautiful in almost every way except for a deformed hand where two fingers fuse into one, the source of an incredible power. With a single touch, she can restore old cars to mint condition and bring machines to life. She tells them what to do and they obey.

In the previous iteration of this query you mentioned you're the father of two daughters. Now, is any single part of either of those girls not beautiful to you? (I really hope the answer is no)

I suggest that "beautiful in every way" INCLUDING a deformed hand, more correctly conveys how Mark feels about his daughter.

Her mother’s drug supplier tried to sell Lara to the Russian Mafia, and then a runaway steamroller flattened him in the street.

If you break that into two sentences it has more punch: Her mother’s drug supplier tried to sell Lara to the Russian Mafia. A runaway steamroller flattened him in the street.

(I'm sure it says nothing good about me that I really like that idea.)

You almost never need and before then. (The exception is dialogue) As you read your query (AND your novel) try the sentence without "and." Where ever you can, prune away every SINGLE unneeded word and then you will see what I mean.

The Russians, though, still want their prize. After tracking Lara to Mark’s doorstep, they try to convince him to give her up. When he refuses, they resort to burning down his business, executing his friends, and his parents.

Watch for verbs ending in -ing. When he refuses, they burn down his business, execute his friends, and his parents. See the difference?

Mark has other problems besides the Russians. A routine trip to the doctor leads to the discovery of a cyst on Lara’s brain. It grows each time she uses her power. If it gets big enough, it will choke off the blood supply to her brain causing stroke, coma, and potentially death.

To defeat the Russians, Mark will have to fight them alone. With only a little money and no place to hide, Mark will make a final stand, willing to give his final breath to save his daughter’s life.

A 75,000-word horror novel, One Touch focuses on the relationship between a father and his child.

Don't tell me what it focuses on. You've shown me what the story is about; that's all you need to do: ONE TOUCH is a 75,000 word horror novel.

May I send some portion of my manuscript for your review?

Thank you for your time and consideration.

With Highest Regards,

This is a LOT better than the first version. It's still a form rejection though because I have a sneaking suspicion the novel needs more polish. When I see this kind of writing in a query (and it's NOT bad writing, it's just polished enough yet) I believe I'll see it in the novel. I don't request or take on projects I think will need a lot of polish.

There's a real difference for me in novels that are polished but might need some structural work, and novels where the writing just doesn't gleam yet.

Dear QueryShark,

Auto-mechanic Mark Allister lived an uncomplicated life. When an ex-girlfriend dies from a heroine overdose, he inherits a copper-headed little girl; a daughter he never knew existed.

And we're done right here. Why? Unless the ex-girlfriend died from reading too many romance novels, it's most likely you mean heroin, not heroine. There's a pretty big difference.

I've howled about this before but I'll say it again: words are your tools. If you misuse them, it's a Huge Warning Sign. I don't mean typos. We all make those. This isn't a typo. This is a homonym.

The other thing here is that you're saying things twice: copper-headed little girl and a daughter he never knew existed are the same person.

The sentence sounds stronger like this: When an ex-girlfriend dies from a heroine overdose, he inherits a daughter he never knew existed.

Given that the color of her hair probably doesn't much matter, I suggest you pare it out to give your sentence some oomph.

Lara Allister is a beautiful little seven-year-old, except for a deformed little hand, where there are four fingers instead of five. Mark wants to put Lara up for adoption, but changes his mind after he discovers her magnificent power. She can talk to machines, she can tell them what to do, and they obey. It is a power governments would pay billions to possess. Members of the Russian Mafia will not rest until they own it and can sell it.

What does her deformity have to do with her power? If they are not related, they don't belong in the same paragraph. If they are, then it's not obvious to me how talking to machines is related to a missing finger (and I'll forgo the smart ass offering that she talks to machines in sign language)

And if you want Mark to sound like a schmuck, you'll leave in the part about putting the kid up for adoption. Without any other information like "doubting his ability to raise a child" or "because he worked on an oil rig and was away from home for weeks at a time" his initial response to give up the kid makes him unsympathetic.

And of course, he keeps her only when he finds out she has magic powers doesn't do much to change that impression.

Set in the fictional town of Indian Springs, Alabama, One Touch documents the heroic story of how an average man saves one unique little girl.

When you use the word "document" you imply it's non-fiction. Novels don't document anything. They're made up.

A 75,000 word work of fiction, One Touch is a horror novel that champions the relationship between a father and his child.

This is a horror novel? You really fooled me. There's nothing here that makes me think this falls in that category.

And you don't need to say it's a work of fiction and that it's a novel. You didn't use the magic rejection phrase fiction novel, but you came close.

As a father of two little girls, I drew upon my relationship with them to develop the characters and the emotions of this book.

This is a novel. You get to make it all up and you don't have to tell me where you got the ingredients.

As a follower of both of your blogs I worked a long time for this opportunity. Though flattery gets you no where, I would honestly consider it an honor if you reviewed my work. May I send you some portion of my manuscript?

Don't tell me you follow this blog. SHOW ME. Show me by writing a query letter that makes me think "holy crap, they've been paying attention."

This is form rejection in paragraph one.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Dear QueryShark:

Can Jim Taylor and his horse thwart a gang of murders and kidnappers? Only Jim avoids capture when the son of an oil and gas magnate and his party are held for ransom.

The way you've organized those sentences makes it sound like Jim's horse gets kidnapped. You need to start with "When the son of (etc)" to make it work.

Solitude Showdown follows Jim and his horse and their efforts to rescue the hostages and survive the rigors of the Wyoming wilderness.

Jim has come to Wyoming fleeing a life he can no longer endure.

This doesn't matter to the core of the plot, and doesn't belong in the query. What matters is why Jim feels like he has to thwart these guys on his own. Frankly, if someone kidnapped my merry band of godsends, I'd leave them and run off to Vegas. Well, ok, maybe not. But here we get no sense of why Jim feels a stake in the outcome. Why does he care? Fleeing a life he can't endure because that's not specific enough to be real is not specific enough for us to understand why he'd risk his life (and his horse!) to thwart the bad guys.

He and his horse, Buck, witness the murder of one camper and the taking of the rest of the party. Calling on his cell phone, Jim learns that the local sheriff is unable to help. Only he and Buck can save the hostages.

This is really awkward. Buck witnesses the murder? Well, ok, but really c'mon. "The taking of the rest of the party" Anytime you have an eight word sentence and three of the words are "the" you have textbook "needs to be revised"

"Calling on his cell phone": Jim reaches the sheriff by cell phone, and learns he is unable to help.

"Only he and Buck can save the hostages" Well, no. Paying the ransom probably can too. Right?

Outnumbered six to one, Jim exploits his horsemanship and his knowledge of the wilderness to even the odds. Seeking redemption for past failures, Jim risks his life repeatedly and kills again and again. He is horrified to discover a talent for killing.

The only interesting sentence here is that he's horrified to discover he has a talent for killing. Why is he horrified?

Relying on Jim’s calls for information, Sheriff’s Zeke Thomason comes to suspect that the man held for ransom is actually a willing participant. Doublecrosses and forces of nature create chaos for the kidnappers and for law enforcement. Even escape from the mountains does not end the ordeal for Jim and Buck.

Solitude Showdown is 65,000 words complete. It is the first of several novels featuring Jim, Buck and Sheriff Zeke Thomason.

Let's start with one and see how it goes.

My guess is that the book is as full of awkward writing as the query. I see writers querying too early in their careers a LOT. I have a sneaking suspicion that's the case here.

this is a form rejection.
Word Count: 65,000

Title: Solitude Showdown

(name redacted)

The name on your email, and this name do not match.
That's a HUGE red flag for me on queries.
My guess is you had your admin asst send this.
Use a dedicated email for your writing, NOT your biz email, and certainly NOT your admin's.

(street address redacted)
(evening phone redacted)
(day phone redacted)

I know you said you read and followed the directions, but I simply do not believe it after seeing this.

Do not start with the word count and the title. And REALLY don't start with your contact information.

My computer screen shows seven FEWER lines of your actual query when you do this. If an agent is reading on her Blackberry, Iphone or other small screen, it's even less: the first eight lines you've used with housekeeping details are the ONLY thing she sees.

Once more cause it's clearly not sinking in: start with what the book is about.

Can one man and his horse thwart a gang of murders and kidnappers? The son of an oil and gas magnate and his party are held for ransom. Only one man avoids capture. Solitude Showdown follows that man and his horse in their efforts to rescue the hostages and survive the rigors of the Wyoming wilderness.

The one man in the first sentence is not the son of the oil magnate in the second. The third sentence goes back to the "one man." This is tennis match writing: bouncing from one court to another. That's not what you want, particularly in a query.

Consider this:

Can one man and his horse thwart a gang of murders and kidnappers? Only one man avoids capture when the son of an oil and gas magnate and his party are held for ransom. Solitude Showdown follows that man and his horse in their efforts to rescue the hostages and survive the rigors of the Wyoming wilderness.

Jim Taylor has come to Wyoming fleeing a life he can no longer endure. He and his horse, Buck, witness the murder of one camper and the taking of the rest of the party. Jim struggles to overcome self doubt and the impulse to flee from the crisis.

And you'd be much better off to replace "one man" in paragraph one with his name.

There's an offputting inconsistency between the first and last sentence. Jim Taylor is fleeing a life he can no longer endure. That seems to show he's got some gumption to make changes in his life. The last sentence (struggles to overcome self-doubt and the impulse to flee from the crisis) undercuts our sense that Jim might be heroic.

Communicating by cell phone, Jim is enlisted by the local sheriff to follow kidnappers through the wilderness. Forced by circumstances, both man and horse kill members of the kidnap gang. Jim is shocked to discover how easy killing becomes. He wonders whether he is any different from the men he has stalked.

Here's you've sunk into telling us about situations, not choices. WHY does Jim elect to do this? What's in it for him?

Alerted by Jim’s call, Sheriff Zeke Thomason tries to organize a posse. He is immobilized by meddling politicians. Frustrated at being held up in town, he must await Jim’s calls for news. A savvy old lawman, the sheriff comes to suspect that the man held for ransom is actually a willing participant.

Whoa. Cell phones are a feature of the modern day. Posses are not. You're also getting bogged down in too much detail here, and you're burying the most interesting part of the paragraph: the man held for ransom is actually a willing participant.

Here's where I'd stop reading. There's nothing enticing or interesting yet, there's at least one "whoa" and the jumbled writing of paragraph one makes me think the novel will have more of the same.

Jim and Buck endure rain, snow, and cold and survive a violent electrical storm and a forest fire. Their shared ordeal strengthens the bond between them. After finally escaping the mountains they must once again defeat the gang leader at the trailhead.

The query is not the place for a complete rundown on the book. You don't need to do anything but set up the premise of the plot and introduce the characters. In fact, the more you tell me, the less likely I am to want to read it because in this very short form of the query letter you have to leave out all the stuff that makes the plot actually work. More is actually LESS ENTICING in a query.

My writing experience dates back many years to when I was a reporter and columnist for a weekly newspaper (in addition to being a hot type topographer). For the past thirty plus years I have been a trial lawyer which means my communication skills have been focused on orally persuasive story telling.

None of this is a publication credential for novels.

For details on my legal career please see www.(redacted).com .

Never ever ever do this. Never. It has nothing to do with querying for a novel.

My legal experience dovetails into my platform. I am well known and respected in my field throughout (region redacted) and have hundreds of former clients who stay in touch.

Well, emailing them you have a novel for sale is a good way to pare down the list of people who want to hear from you.

I am also an experienced horseman and for the past ten years have lived on a farm with nine of the beasts. I have developed an expertise in equine law and am a popular speaker at equine related meetings. I get calls from horse people throughout the state seeking advice and counsel.

There are millions of horses in the United States. The last figure I read was seven million. There are many millions more horse lovers and people who will ride or watch riding events. The horse, Buck, features prominently in the novel and will appeal to all horse people and horse lovers.

This is the worst abuse of logic I see in query letters: My book has horses, people like horses, people will like my book. Not only is that not true, it's so clearly not true, it's one of those phrases that triggers the rejection button.

I am a baby boomer and believe I project that experience and philosophy into the novel. The character, Jim, is sixtyish and has a boomer’s perspective on life and taste in music.

There's now a baby boomer philosophy?

Look, you're trying too hard here. To use a riding metaphor, you're holding the reins with a death grip hoping to steer the query horse in the right direction. Ease up. Tell me what the book is about. That's all I care about.

I enclose a return envelope for your convenience.
This is an email query. If you've enclosed an envelope, I'll eat my cowgirl hat.

I get this kind of stuff every once in a while; mistakes that show you've written this for a paper query then just emailed it. It's not a big deal by itself but it shows you either aren't proofreading your queries, or you don't care. Neither of those are attributes I seek in potential clients.

This is a form rejection.

There are several excellent examples of good and enticing query letters on this blog. Read them.
Revise. Resend.