Saturday, July 24, 2010


Dear Query Shark,

For eight years, Daniel Schmidt has been doing his best to support himself and his abusive, disabled mother. He took a job at a local grocery store, dropped out of college, sacrificed his future to look after her, and she has nothing but contempt for him.

How about I just smack Daniel around and tell him to snap out of it? It worked for Cher and Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck, right?

The trouble with this opening is that it makes Daniel sound like someone I don't want to spend a paragraph with, let alone a book with. What do you like about him? What motivated him to do all this sacrificing for his mother? Why didn't he leave her to be eaten by wolves?

I don't assume he's a selfless lad because of this; I see a spineless wuss. You've got to make us see his merits here.

One day, Daniel decides not to go straight home after work but to instead take a walk in the woods, and his life changes forever. He meets a young girl named Anja and feels compelled to follow when she invites him to come back to Herbst, a magical village deep in the woods. The villagers welcome him with open arms and for the first time in as long as Daniel can remember, he feels appreciated.

"Feels compelled to follow" is so passive I want to start smacking YOU around now, not Daniel. This is not the reaction you're looking for.

Herbst is a place where people who need to can escape their old lives and start over, and

This, right here, is where your story begins, and a much better first line:

Daniel desperately needs a fresh start. Herbst also can only exist as long as Anja does, and a man lurking in the woods is trying to kill her.

Why is someone trying to kill her? The story is not about how Daniel got there, but what happens now that he's there.

When Daniel and three other newcomers to the village come together to protect Anja, they find themselves up against more than just a man. They have to protect her from an embodiment of the evils of the world they left behind, who seeks to bring unending winter to the village of

This is so general as to be meaningless. You must be specific. "More than just a man"...does that mean he's also a woman? A goat? A shark? I know you mean something else, but this is not the place to be coy about what makes him more than a man.

Eternal Autumn, a 94,000-word fantasy novel, is complete and available at your request.

Thank you for your time,

Form rejection



(name redacted)
(address redacted)
(apartment number redacted)
(city state zip redacted)

If I mention this often enough will you stop doing it?


If I see this in a letter addressed to the Query Shark, your chances of getting on the blog drop to zero. If I see it, you haven't read the archives. Or you read the archives and didn't pay attention. I've mentioned this enough times that I'm starting long past boring myself.

Learn it. Know it. Follow the damn directions.

Dear Query Shark

Deep in an ancient forest, there is a little village called Herbst. Fiery autumnal hues light up the trees of the village year-round, the air is crisp and cool, and the mountaintops are capped with snow.

well, ok, sure but so what?

Unless fiery autumnal hues is the name of the protagonist, it doesn't belong in the first paragraph. And fiery autumnal hues is just plain bad writing. It doesn't say anything more than "red and orange." If you choose to describe red and orange leaves in some fancy way, it should add to the description not just gild it.

If I got this query I'd stop reading right here.

Not many of the villagers are originally from Herbst. Most of them came from ordinary places, like New York or Alabama. How they arrived at Herbst varies, but they all had two things in common – they all needed to escape their old lives, and a young girl named Anja showed them the way.

Describing New York as ordinary and like Alabama made me laugh out loud, and not in a good way.

"A young girl named Anja showed them the way" is actually pretty creepy. You've said this is set in real time, and real space when you invoke New York and Alabama. Thus you've limited your time and space to what will feel emotionally true to us here and now. The only thing I want to know about Anja is why she isn't in school and why she's running around like the Pied Piper of Pelham.

If you want to create a world where young girls lead people out of their old lives, you'd do much better to not invoke the present day.

Through each other’s support and Anja’s help, Herbst became a place where people could leave their miseries behind and start over.

So far, this sounds like Big Sur in the 60's plus nothing is happening. This is a bad sign.

At least, that’s what it used to be.

Finally you get to a point where there is some tension. This is in fact where your story and your query letter start: Herbst used to be a refuge for people. Then....

A stranger has arrived in the forest, hell-bent on murdering the little girl and destroying the village. When four newcomers to the village band together to protect her, they find themselves not only fighting against the new evil lurking outside the village gates but the evils of the old world they left behind, and they discover Anja’s true connection to the village of Herbst.

So, the stranger, I'm guessing he's not the protagonist? Too bad. He's the only interesting one here. Why is he hell-bent on this seeming wicked deed? Oh he just wants to kill her isn't a really compelling motivation (not that I haven't experienced it myself quite recently.)

Eternal Autumn, a 94,000-word novel for young adults, or those who wish they were still young, is available at your request.

If I hadn't stopped reading in the first paragraph, here's where I would have.

For starters, this isn't a YA novel at all. YA novels have protagonists in their teens (your novel doesn't). Generally they deal with issues or themes (and have plots) that are of concern to teen readers (your novel does not).

And "those who wish they were still young" is just rude.

Lots of adults read YA because it's good writing, not because they want to be 16 again. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to think of anyone in my office who reads YA who wants to be 16 again.

I see this kind of "oh my book is YA" now that YA is really hot. Unless you've read 150 YA books that were published in the last three years, you should not even think about writing a YA book or think you know what it is.

Thank you for your time,

This is a form rejection.


Ellie said...

In fact, I'd be hard pressed to think of anyone in my office who reads YA who wants to be 16 again.

Heh, I was just saying the other day, I absolutely love YA but I never finish a book without thinking, "I am so glad I'm not a teenager anymore."

Anonymous said...

loved this.

Clare K. R. Miller said...

"A young girl named Anja showed them the way" is actually pretty creepy.

Heck yes. And I want more! Hope this one gets a revision so I can actually find out what the story is about. (Unless this isn't fantasy or horror, that is. But Anja makes me think it is.)

Anonymous said...

What I think is most lacking about this query is that it doesn't really showcase the protagonist at all. I know nothing more than her name and her age. She should be the center of this query.

- Catherine

Nicole said...

Did I miss something or did we ever even find out where Herbst is? I was thinking of something like Lois Lowry's The Messenger, but then New York and Alabama popped up and I had a moment of brain freeze.

M. G. E. said...

Another one falls victim to the jacket-flap teaser mentality.

Tara Maya said...

Why would anyone want to live where it is always autumn? Summertown, anyone? Or is there one special refuge for each season?

The motives of everyone here are utterly mysterious to me. Why anyone would move to this refuge, why Anja would lead them there, why anyone would want to destroy it. It's hard to know what stakes are involved when I can't guess why anyone does anything.

Stephanie Barr said...

The protagonist appears to be a version of Brigadoon, the town itself. Only no singing.

As described, I don't see what the point of the story is.

I also have to reiterate what the shark said about YA. In YA, you need protagonists that speak teenager, that the target audience can identify with, situations that speak to them. I don't see anything here that would do that.

Dr. Cheryl Carvajal said...

I can't even figure out age. How can a young girl guide all of these people to a place of refuge, yet then it becomes a scary place (after how long?), and she has to be older, but how old? How much time are we talking about here, and does the first half of the novel schlog through it ALL?

Like the letter, the novel should start when the drama does, and the previous details should be sparse.

I agree with the YA remarks. YA readers are looking for kids either older than they are by a few years, or have no desire to relive their teenagerhood. Seventeen magazine's fiction features many stories about college... not about 13-year-olds...

Nina Hansen said...

The two things I missed most in this query was a sense of story and a sense of place. I couldn't figure out where or when, or what happens.

That said, there were a few creepy, borderline horror tones which did catch my interest!

Josin L. McQuein said...

The query might work better if you started with one of the "four" who band together being led to the village by the mysterious Anja. That would give you a chance to showcase the protag(s) and a view of exactly what the village is.

Then go to the mysterious, wants to kill Anja, guy.

Once we know WHY someone follows this girl, and what they have to gain in the village, we'll know what they have to lose if she's destroyed, and the lengths they'll go through to protect her. It might be nice to know why the guy wants her dead, too.

Nadia said...

This absolutely abysmal query letter is mine. Thanks to both Ms. Shark and everyone who has commented so far!

I'd like to ask a question for anyone still reading at this point.

The protagonists are the four newcomers to the village. One recurring thing I've seen and been repeatedly warned against is introducing too many characters in a query. Clearly, this can go too far in the other direction, as there were NONE introduced.

Does anyone have a suggestion on how to handle character introductions in a story where all four are of significance, but you fear making the query too convoluted?

(There's plenty of other issues to fix, but I haven't the slightest clue how to approach this one.)

I plan on following up on this with revisions, and I am not pulling the query. I submitted it to get torn a new one, and harsh or not, this is more advice than I can get at my local writing group! :)


Anonymous said...

Frank, way to be brave!

I think my answer to the ' how to handle character introductions in a story where all four are of significance, but you fear making the query too convoluted?" question is that you don't.

Introduce one, two or maybe three characters out of the six you've got in your query. Stick with your protagonist and other main character(s). Not all important characters need to be in the query, just the central one(s).

Hopefully the agent will meet the rest because they requested pages.

Tyler Tork said...

I think it's amusing that you write, "If I see this ..., your chances of getting on the blog drop to zero" -- about a letter that is on the blog.


KatOwens: Insect Collector said...

Frank- You are indeed brave.

The most important step is jumping into the shark tank!

As for too many characters in the query: I agree introducing them all is a mistake.

Is the story told from 4 POVs?

It will be incredibly difficult to talk about all four in the query.

I am not saying change the book-- only the query. The query format is too short, you will never be able to tell the whole story. And that's fine-- because you're not supposed to.

Is there a dominant newcomer? Could you effectively write a query with this character as the central element?

Then you could potentially weave it in like this(very rough example, sorry): Madame X and a band of newcomers have to do X to save the creepy girl or the autumnal hues of Herbst are forever in jeopardy.

JS said...

Here's what seems disjunctive to me about the plot* :

This is a magical village like Shangri-La or Brigadoon or Cockayne, etc., etc. It is a magical village where it is always autumn, as we can tell from the name (which is too on the nose for me; it's not like German is an obscure language, after all).

So why is the guiding spirit a young girl? Young people are the spirits of spring, not autumn. Is the guiding spirit of Fruehlingsberg a lovely 40-something woman? The guiding spirit of Winterdorp a baby?

*Others have already covered the issues with the query, and yes, it's OK to pick just one of the protags for query purposes: In SUPERFRIENDS, Superman and his fellow costumed heroes use their astonishing powers to conquer mega-villains is just fine; when the agent starts reading the pages and realizes that it's not just Superman, it's Batman and Wonder Woman and Aquaman, too, they won't feel cheated.

Thari said...

Does anyone have a suggestion on how to handle character introductions in a story where all four are of significance, but you fear making the query too convoluted?

How's about: "Four young men have been led to the eternal village of Herbst by Anja, the ever-young guide to those seek refuge from life's travails. They are shocked to find Anja under attack by a stranger hell-bent on destroying her. But first, they must discover how the stranger has found his way to Herbst..." &c?

Fanfreakingtastic Flower said...


My feeling is, this could be a very cool story you have on your hands.

Obviously, the Shark gave you a ton of excellent feedback, but you might want to check out - The Practice Critiques forum there generates a lot of useful suggestions. : )

Josin L. McQuein said...


Would it be possible to structure it something like: (totally random names, of course, since I don't know your story)

The first time Hero Goodguy met Anja, he thought she was a regular kid, then she told him about (the village) and for some reason he still hasn't figured out himself, he followed her.

***insert query awesomness here ***

Now it's upto Hero and three other dreamers like him to defend their new home agianst Evil Villainman.

Something like this would let you say that there are 4 protags, but focus the the story through the eyes of one.

Anonymous said...

Well, one thing was blatantly apparent - someone who thinks that New York and Alabama are comparable geographies has never been to either place.

Never exhibit naivete or ignorance of the world around you if you can help it - editors and agents are extremely jaded. This will not be a point in your favor.

Anonymous said...

"Not that I haven't experienced it myself quite recently."

Ha ha ha ha. The Shark's been using her hiatus to sharpen her teeth.

Nadia said...


That's just more horrible query writing on my part. I actually lived in Alabama and New York for close to 15 years. It was not my intention to claim they were comparable locations. :)

@Everyone else:

Thank you so much for the help and suggestions. I really appreciate them.

Revisions (and by revisions I mean a complete rewrite) are coming up. Still working on it!

Anonymous said...

That's just more horrible query writing on my part. I actually lived in Alabama and New York for close to 15 years. It was not my intention to claim they were comparable locations. :)

^ Good to know. I live in Alabama and have travelled in New England extensively, and I'd pretty much consider comparing them to be comparing kiwis and peaches. :P

Looking forward to seeing the revision!

DeadlyAccurate said...

There are people on AW who absolutely insist emails should begin with address information. That's at least one of the places where this advice gets bandied around. Even when we point out that email is not snail mail, they still hold fast to their old ways.

JD Horn said...

Hey, Frank!

I feel a definite Neil Gaiman vibe somewhere in this. I am intrigued.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm a minority of one, but I thought the Alabama and New York thing was a joke, and a kind of funny one at that. I enjoyed it and thought it showed a nice sense of humor. However, since I'm obviously alone in this opinion I guess definitely take it out.

I thought the story sounded very interesting. As someone else said, reminiscent of The Messenger, which I found disappointing after The Giver and Gathering Blue were so good (The Giver is one of my favorite books of all time). Although I'm not really into fantasy or sci fi, I would be intrigued to read a book that tried the same premise, but did a better job of it.

I agree with others that you have to say how this is related to YA readers. "Young girl" confused me, too, because it's sort of meaningless. People say that phrase about anything from toddlers up to teens, depending on the context. I would say child if she's under 12, or young teenager if she's in her early teens, or young woman if she's in her later teens. And I would specify the general age group of the boys, if they're supposed to be the YA connection.

I think that I would have enjoyed this book as a young teen.

Jane said...

The revised query actually kind of made me want to read it. Not quite, but I feel like there might be a good novel hiding behind this letter. Good luck, Frank!

Anonymous said...

Herbst can't exist without Anja... okay, two things here. The first is: Why not?

The second is: I'm not sure it should. Daniel sounds like someone who needs to face the problems in his life, not run away from them.

I guess it seems like the story centers on the necessity of Herbst and of Anja as somehow the source of Herbst, but neither is quite convincing enough at this point.

(Also, if it's always autumn, how do they grow food? And when Anja eventually dies of old age, what will happen to all the people in Herbst?)

Fanfreakingtastic Flower said...

Frank, glad to see you still working on this. It reminds me of the trailers for M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. I say "the trailers" because the movie itself was horrible. But there was a cool idea there, a cool feeling, and I was sad when M. Night dropped the ball and failed to deliver on the promise suggested by the trailers. Good luck and keep plugging!

Stephanie Barr said...

Re: Revision

Man, I was just writing about this, that I'd rather an edgy amoral main character than completely passive follower character.

I've got to tell you, I, for one, have no interest in a book about blind followers who left one situation where they refused to take a stand to another where they were just as codependent on a young but mysterious spiritual guide.

Herbst sounds so escapist to me as to sound like a cult with everything that threatens it as "evil." (Admittedly, Brigadoon seemed pretty much that, way, too, but they could at least sing). In any case, from this query, I don't see Herbst as healthy.

Admittedly, I like a story where the characters make the story rather than just be led by it.

Others might see it differently but that's what struck me.

M. G. E. said...

(Post Revision)


Going to "magical" Herbst-incomprehensible.

And I'm more interested in Anja than Daniel. Is this really his story? It seems a lot more like her story. Even the main conflict has to do with Anja and someone trying to kill her.

What prevents Daniel from walking away at any moment?

Anonymous said...

It has to be a bad thing when I can hardly recognize the revised query letter as being about the same book as the original.

Are bad queries more likely to be posted here than good ones? I mean, do agents really get so many awful queries?

I wonder when people who put their addresses at the top of queries will stop being posted on the blog.

Anonymous said...

Frank, I'm wondering (and I really hope this isn't offensive to you): were you influenced at all by Ursula LeGuin's "The Beginning Place"? This is ringing those bells for me.

If not (or even if so), it might be interesting if the focus was actually on Anja.

As others have said, I have no clear sense of either the characters or the conflict, but I do think you have something intriguing here. (And my own novel-in-progress was definitely influenced by LeGuin!) Someone on queryconnect suggested writing seven brief sentences summing up your character(s) and their struggle, and then fleshing them out a little. I'd say, start with the conflict.

Anonymous said...

This story reminds me very strongly of The Village...

Thari said...

I think - as others have pointed out - that the first thing you need to do is decide if Anja is the main character or if Daniel is. Then (ignoring the novel you have written) re-write the query from this starting point, eliminating all passive voice.

(Check out this site:

Next, re-read your novel, and decide if the new query describes it. If not, re-write your novel.

I think the new query is only a little clearer as to motivations of the characters. (And I am curious: how much of the novel is taken up by Daniel vs. his mother?)

Unknown said...

Eternal Autumn made me think of a Twilight Zone epizode about two kids who escape to an alternate world through their swimming pool.

I'm sorry, I don't mean to be negative but when I read this my response was, "Oh brother."

Nadia said...

Alrighty then! =) I expected a rejection for the revised version as well, since it was a complete rewrite of the query. At least this time I got the letter to say something, at least!

It still needs more work, clearly. I'm revisiting the letter next week when I have some time and will hopefully churn out a much-improved version by the weekend.

Consider me worried by the M. Night comparisons. Some comparisons are more favorable than others, and that's certainly not one of the positive ones! ;)

To answer a few quick questions I saw here:


I have read the book, actually! Le Guin is one of my favorite authors. I recognize that it sounds kinda similar, but I swear, as much as I can swear without showing you the manuscript itself, that it isn't. :)

(I truthfully was not a big fan of T.B.P; I thought it was very weak compared to nearly all of her other books.)

@MGE - One of the dilemmas I ran into with the first version of the query (and which in large part made me give it a complete rewrite) was that there are four protagonists, roughly equal in importance, and they all have a link to Anja in the story. In the revised version, I opted to go with the first protagonist introduced in the book, and I managed to make him sound like a whiner to boot! (To some extent, that's accurate, I suppose. He is absolutely spineless at the beginning.) Relative to any one protagonist, I would say that the story is more about Anja, but Anja herself does not stack up to the four protagonists as a whole.


Daniel actually does go back to fix up his problems back home. I wasn't (and frankly still am not) sure what / how much material warrants being put into the query.

About 2.5 total chapters.

M. G. E. said...

...there are four protagonists, roughly equal in importance, and they all have a link to Anja in the story.
- Well, you've set yourself quite a challenge then, because the risk is that your story may become too diffuse. I assume you have them all in the same place most of them time.

In the revised version, I opted to go with the first protagonist introduced in the book, and I managed to make him sound like a whiner to boot!
- This is the other risk, that one of your characters may fall flat. Like the one you chose has fallen flat (in the query at least).

The main reason this revision failed is because you chose to focus on one of the characters, as you say. What you need to do is focus on the "story question." This query made it look like the central question of the novel was whether Daniel would get over being a wuss and stand-up for Anja at least.

But that's a very compelling question...

M. G. E. said...

Edit: NOT a very compelling question, rather.

Anonymous said...

Frank, you may not need to put that in, specifically, but you do need to put something in to make Daniel into a person who faces his problems. Otherwise he's too passive to engage readers.

tlbodine said...

First -- I commend you for your attitude. It's ALWAYS great to see somebody who can behave so gracefully under some fairly vicious pressure :)

Now...I think I like what's going on here. This book is *exactly* up my alley, I think. I'm a big sucker for the "fantasy world on the fringes of reality where people work out their problems" breed of urban fiction, from Narnia to Neverwhere. So I'm rooting for you.

I think you might have better luck approaching the query from Anja's perspective. Even though there are four protaganists, Anja is still the person that links them...Anja is the one whose life is in danger...and Anja is the one who's inextricably linked to Herbst.

If you can tell me a little bit about who Anja is, and why someone is trying to kill her/destroy Herbst, and how a group of her followers (for lack of a better word) rally to her aid, then that might get a bit closer to the heart of the story?

Incidentally, I didn't think Daniel was necessarily unlikeable. He reminded me of the lead in Willard (one of my favorite movies). Which may not be what you're going for ;)

Anonymous said...

Late to the party but I couldn't resist:

Seems to me that Anja is your main character, the battle with the mysterious fellow is HER conflict, and the other four are supporting characters. At least they are for the query's purposes.