Monday, September 27, 2010

What a nice way to start the week! Thank you P&E!

(of course, it's quite hilarious to see the P&E button that announces they are "shark repellent"!)

For those of you unfamiliar with the site Preditors and Editors helps you avoid fee-charging agents and other undesirables.   It's a must read site for authors seeking agents.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Dear QueryShark,

18 year old Keri McCallen is the youngest ever to serve as commander of a space ship, let alone the brand new Elpis. She is on a mission to explore the stars.

That she's the youngest, and the ship is brand new don't seem to matter for the story you're describing below. It's also description, thus unnecessary description. Always open a query with action, or a choice the hero needs to make, or what's at stake. In other words something dynamic, not static.

She met a guy on Earth named Chance, but who suddenly Chance appears on The Elpis wanting her help. Turned out Chance is from another planet called Erra. His people are involved in an interstellar war. He was has been sent to ask for Keri's help in particular. What's so special about why her? Even Chance wasn't told why; it just had to be her.

This is unfocused. Does it matter she met him on earth? No. What matters is the forward action: he needs her help and doesn't know why.

Unbeknown to them Keri's mother is involved.

Keri thought her parents died in a horrific aircraft accident on Earth. Now her mother comes back working the puppet strings to bring Keri to their home world Erra, to triumph against the Teagun Empire who's set out to destroy both Erra and Earth for revenge.

This passes unfocused and is now chaotic. Focus ONLY on what is going to happen. Leave out the background (her parents died etc)

Seems there is something special about Keri, her mother is Erron and her father was Teagun. The power of those two races comes together. Now it's Keri's unique existence that can save them all.

You'll want to rethink naming any race "teagun."

Last Chance is a sci-fi mystery containing 52,000 words. This is my debut.

There's not a chance in the world this book is long enough. VERY fast paced high octane crime novels clock in at 55,000 words. Science fiction, and the requisite world building usually start at double that.

I enjoy that this book opens your mind to more possibilities in outer space. If there is intelligent life could some of it have come from Earth millions of years ago? I'd like to think it's a possibility. If they did, what would they be like? I answer those questions and more.

All that may be true, and may be why you wrote the book, but none of it belongs in a query letter. The only thing that belongs in a query is the story.

Thank you for your consideration,

I have a feeling you shouldn't be querying yet. Many writers query too soon, and I have the feeling this is the case here. A good writers group, and critique partners can often help you see places the book needs development. Rather than revise this query, spend some time on the book.

This is a form rejection.


Dear Query Shark,

Protected witness Jessica Reynolds is in deep trouble. The killer she helped put behind bars ten years ago has escaped, and thanks to a breach in cyber-security, knows her new identity. A federal marshal shows up at her home without warning, ready to immediately whisk her away for a second relocation. Jessica refuses to go, unwilling to walk away from her career, home and friends without a fight.

Yes! This is exactly how to start a query. We know what Jessica wants, and who is trying to thwart her.

Veteran Marshal Max Prescott's assignment sounded simple: contact an endangered witness, and transport her to a safe house to await a permanent relocation. Instead, he's faced with protecting the stubborn woman, while using her as willing bait to draw a vengeful killer into the open. Still plagued with guilt after his wife's tragic death, it's the last duty he'd choose. The last duty he'd shirk.

Yes! This adds a layer to the story, introduces the hero, gives us a sense of what he's about. At this point we know the characters, what they want, and have a sense of who they are. There's nothing extra here, but also nothing left out.

The trap laid and baited, Max and Jessica wait. While familiarity often breeds contempt, in this case it breeds something far warmer. As their feelings for each other grow, they have no idea the killer watches, and prepares a deadly trap of his own.

Two excellent strategies here: "the trap laid and baited" Notice the author doesn't give specifics. There's no step by step list of what Jessica and Max do to lay the trap. This way the author isn't bogged down in unnecessary details. Same with what the bad guy is doing. We know what he's doing but it's not how or why. This is exactly the way to do it.

WORST CASE SCENARIO is a 100,000 word romantic suspense. It is my first novel.

Nice title too.

Thank you for your time.

I'd request pages the moment I finished reading. Nice job.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Dear Query Shark:

To find closure in death, especially for a child, can be a heart wrenching time.

This doesn't say anything, and it is VERY off-putting because at first glance it looks like you're talking about the death of a child.

start here instead ------->KATIE’S LUCKY LEAVES is a story of a young girl facing the death of her father, with her Grammie’s help.

This is very abstract. I'm not sure if her father is dying or dead. Be specific: Katie's father is dying/has died. Her Grammie tells her a story to show her that her father will always be with her.

While making cookies Grammie weaves a magical tale about love, leaves and the wind. With the cookies made and set to cool, Katie catches autumn leaves before they touch the ground for their greatest luck. Once Katie collects an apron-full, Katie and Grammie place those leaves in a shoebox and bury it in Mother’s garden, where the leaves will increase their love. The end depicts the wind setting one perfect, red leaf on the soil mound over the buried leaves. Katie knows then that Daddy is the loving wind, always there, wrapping his love around her.

For ages 3—9, with focus on children who have lost a family member, this book is a complete package with 1,400 word story and 22, brightly rendered, double-page illustrations. Left pages hold the primary illustrated action, with text on 19 right pages, for easy reading by an adult to children.

1400 words is long for a picture book. Also, query letters for picture books don't describe the story. They include the ENTIRE text. ALL 1400 words.

Also, you should not describe how you want the book laid out or offer illustrations (generally). Picture book editors (generally) acquire text and illustrations separately.

Ages 3-9 is WAY too large an age span. This is a picture book (I think) and those are for pre-readers- 3-6.

Also, I'm not sure kids who are 3-6 years old are old enough to understand metaphor, and parables, and abstract thinking. My experience with that age group leads me to think they are down in the dirt pragmatists.

And who is your audience here? Who will buy this book? If I know a three year old whose dad just died, the last thing I'd do is buy them a book about death. I think we'd just bake cookies and talk about important things like why sharks make excellent pets.

This is the kind of idea that I usually see from someone who is trying to help, which is a laudable motivation, but I'm looking at this from a purely mercenary point of view: who will buy this book?

My writings have appeared in local newsletters: (list redacted)

You don't need to mention this. Unless you've had picture books published, or other books published, you can leave all that out. If you mention it, you don't need to say which ones, you can leave it at local newsletters.

A poet since youth, over the years through hard work and membership with online critique group, The Writing Well, my prose form has matured.

Leave this out as well. It's akin to showing me pictures of you growing up.Yes you look better after you got your braces off and quit doing the beehive hairdo.

I am educated in art and writing with a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture.

I studied under graphic artist (redacted), et al. By direct sales I marketed my art, sculpture and fine craft in the central United States from 1976—1992. I served on the Boards of, and did exhibitions with the (redacted) Art Guild and (redacted) Sculpture Society, 80’s, 90’s. I exhibited in (redacted) State Univ., (redacted) Art Gallery, 2002 while I studied for my Bachelor’s.

Musicians and artists list their teachers on their CVs before they've had much of their own professional success. You don't need this here. The actual text of the story is all you need.

You state you seek debut authors and are open to Children’s literature. I am a debut author.

You don't need to repeat what an agent is looking for. Often times, it's better not to since it's VERY easy to get it wrong. (websites that list what agents are looking for are notorious sources for these errors)

At this point, knowing there are no certainties, I let intuition be my guide.

I'm not sure why you'd include this in a query letter. It doesn't give me confidence that you've done much research on how the industry works.

You'd do very well to join the Society of Childrens' Books Writers and Illustrators. (link below) They are a terrific organization dedicated to advocating for writers in this field. They have workshops and conferences around the country that are well respected.
You need a lot more industry education under your belt before you proceed.

This is a form rejection.

Here's the link to SCBWI:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

#176-revised 4x

Dear QueryShark:

Former priest Stefan is desperate. His greatest desire is an end to his tortured existence as a vampire. He cannot commit suicide. He had tried and failed. His vampiric nature prevents it--both morally and physically, he cannot act as his own executioner.

The punctuation in the third sentence makes the sentence awkward. I think you're using it here to mean a pause. Generally dashes meaning a pause are used as interruptions, from one speaker to another.  The reason this doesn't work is what follows: the clause both morally and physically, he cannot act as his own executioner. 

Do you mean he can't be his own executioner because of his vampiric nature? If so, his vampiric nature prevents it is the conclusion, not the start, of the sentence: He cannot act as his own executioner; his vampiric nature prevents it both morally and physically.

Stefan’s plan (what plan; so far all we know is his desire) is set into motion when he discovers an ancient dagger, the one used to slay the original vampire. He finds the dagger in the possession of William, a man painfully unaware of its value and origin. Stefan is exuberant when he discovers that William also has the bloodline to wield the dagger’s power. Now he must convince William to end Stefan's suffering.

This paragraph feels like a list of events. A query letter isn't like a recipe: beat one cup flour into one cup sugar and one cup butter.  It's the overview:  "bake a cake."

We don't need to know he discovers an ancient dagger and where. Or that William has the bloodline.  Those are the ingredients.  What we need to know is that Stefan has found a way to have himself killed.

Stefan lures William to Romania. William’s situation and aging mother have left William financially wrecked - a perfect situation for Stefan to take advantage of.

This makes William sound like he'd kill someone for money. Generally speaking that's not a quality one would deem sympathetic.  

As the two grow close, Stefan is left torn. His desperation to his own misery could equate to eternal night for William, if blood is exchanged. The priest that still dwells within him cannot accept that fate for William, nor can he endure a gruesome, blood stained eternity.

The dilemma here is Stefan's: Can he bring himself to condemn William to "eternal night" (whatever the hell that is) to end his own suffering. You might actually want to lead with this because it makes Stefan MUCH more sympathetic than he seems at the start right now.

IMMORTAL DECISION is a 105,000-word urban fantasy debut. Thank you for your consideration.

I'm confused about who the antagonist is here. And the protagonist for that matter. Whose story is this? If it's Stefan's (and that would be my guess given we're hearing what he wants and why he can't get it) that makes William the antagonist. 

If however, you're trying to have the antagonist be Stefan, in that he's trying to suck William into doing something evil, you're going to need William to be more than a cipher. He'll need to be much more developed here.  He finds himself wooed by Stefan, persuaded to come to Romania by the lure of money, only to find the money is contingent upon him killing a vampire who wants to die.  What could be so bad about a true mercy killing? Well, there is the fact it would send him into "eternal night" (whatever the hell that is) and make him a vampire as well.

This is a LOT better than the first query, but you've still got clunky writing and it's hard to see much story here. 

Form rejection.

Dear QueryShark:

A former priest, Stefan’s greatest desire is to end his two hundred years of tortured existence as a vampire. He knows his prophesized death is at hand, but two centuries have taught him that prophesies are often flawed.

Suicide is impossible.

Notice you've switched here from Stefan's POV, to an objective statement.  You need to keep the same POV as much as possible.  Consider: He can't kill himself.  It means (mostly) the same thing, and keeps us with Stefan.

Vampiric natures prevent him from intentionally losing a battle.

Again, keep us with Stefan: His vampire nature prevents him from intentionally being killed in a battle.

The means to his end presents itself in the form of an American named William, a man possessing the very relic Stefan needs, and the heritage to use it.

While the end may present itself, it's a  passive construction.  Consider: he decides to use an American etc...
Stefan lures William to Romania with the promise of a substantial inheritance, an answer to William’s current debacle (debacle isn't really the right word here). Complications arise when Stefan grows fond of William, leaving him (which him?) torn. Stefan’s plan to end his own misery could mean eternal night for William.

Failure equates to an eternity of sunless, Godless existence that Stefan cannot suffer any longer.

IMMORTAL DECISION is a 105,000-word urban fantasy debut. Thank you for your consideration.


Form rejection: this is still awkward and I'm not really taken with either of the main characters.


Dear Agent seeking Queries low on the suckitutde meter, (ha!)

Stefan, Executioner by decree of the Order, has just slain another rampant vampire. Being the eldest and strongest vampire certainly has its downfalls.

It's not clear that Stefan is a vampire (another

And don't get me started on rampant. I looked it up. It's not exactly incorrect, but it seems a strange word choice to me, one that is initially perplexing not illuminating.

He struggles with his duties recalling his days as a priest, but that hasn’t been since 1808.

This is a very awkward construction. You're trying to squeeze in information like it's Cheezewhiz going into a straw.

The executed has left a sizeable Romanian estate to contend with, and no heir. As Stefan searches through the victim’s lineage, a discovery compels him to contrive a plan.

"compels him to contrive a plan" One of the skills a writer must develop is being able to hear clunky constructions like this. One way is to read your work aloud sentence by sentence. I do that here in the office much to the dismay of the other reef-dwellers, but it's one of the most effective ways to hear clunk.

He sends for William, an American in possession of a relic lost since the 1600s: the crucifix of the Archangel Michael.

this is actually the start of the story ------>Stefan’s greatest desire is to end his two hundred years’ of tortured existence. Suicide impossible and vampiric natures preventing him from losing a battle, his options are limited.

All the stuff before this paragraph just gets in the way. Right here is where you've got the answer to a big questions: what does the protagonist want, and what's thwarting him?

Stefan manipulates the young man to read two hundred years worth of journals, concealing that he is the author. The mere human will fold reading the psychological warfare contained in the memoirs of a priest-turned-vampire. Fearful the young man may flee home to the states, Stefan, convinces a cohort to manipulate William into falling in love with a housemaid, cementing his desire to stay in Romania, at least until Stefan is dead.

This is clunky writing here but you're on the right track for what you should be talking about.

Upon completing the journals, William discovers Stefan is the vampire priest. Desperate to end his suffering, Stefan pleads with William to use the crucifix, and dagger contained within, to kill him. Stefan’s fate rests in the hands of William, who must choose if his pity for the priest is worth risking his life, or his mortality.

NO NO NO. NO! Did I mention no yet? Here, let me screech it again:


DO NOT write the entire plot and the ENDING in a query letter.


Write only enough to entice me to read on.

IMMORTAL DECISION is a 105,000 urban fantasy debut. Thank you for your consideration.


This is both better and worse. The writing is worse because it's hurried; you're rushing to revise and not letting it sit long enough. You've got typos and missing words. That's fixable.

Once you get rid of everything before "Stefan’s greatest desire" you've got the structure of the query in working order.

This is still a form rejection but it's better than it was.
Dear Query Shark,

It is 1808; a sadistic vampire stalks a priest and attacks him. Lying on the ground, the priest prays for the monster’s soul. Enraged, the vampire does the unspeakable, dropping his tainted blood into the mouth of the priest, turning him into a vampire. The priest keeps journals, from that point on, detailing his emotional struggle with what he has become.

This is all backstory saying essentially the priest is a vampire who keeps a journal. It's not really the start of the story.

Two hundred years later, William receives an unexpected inheritance, removing the black cloud of unemployment and poverty that has hovered over him for years.

A 200-year-old vampire receives an inheritance? From whom? His mom?

His new inheritance requires him to go to an acquired estate in Romania. He is summoned there by Stefan, the current resident and master at the estate and he knows more about William than he should.

The first sentence says the will or terms of the inheritance requires him to go to Romania. The second says he's summoned there by Stefan. That seems either contradictory or unclear.

Also, we're still not at where the story starts yet.

Stefan’s demeanor is frightening and he even admits to murder. Stefan has one request of William, and that is to read the journals of the vampire priest. William struggles to believe Stefan’s promise to keep him safe as he pours over the journals, and comes to grips with the reality of the supernatural world.

Wait. Wait. William isn't the vampire priest? I'm REALLY confused here. In the second paragraph you introduce "William" as though we've seen him before. I thought he was the priest.
Only now does it seem he's not (which also explains the inheritance snafu.)

We're still not where the story starts either.

Upon completion of the journals he comes face-to-face the reality that Stefan is the vampire priest and the real reason he has been asked to read the journals. The priest wants William to kill him, and he believes William needs to live through the gamut of the priest’s emotions.

Here's the start of the story ----->;William must decide whether to keep his soul and life intact, or to risk it all to end the suffering of the vampire priest.

I have this horrible feeling we're at the end of the book. If this is the first choice William has to make it's really where the story starts.

You've got the entire story listed here, instead of the enticing (we hope) first bit. Narrow down what you're going to tell me. Focus on the first choice William has to make so we get a sense of the plot.

Remember a query letter is not a synopsis. Entice me to read on, don't tell me everything that happens.

IMMORTAL DECISION is a 100,000 word debut fantasy novel. Thank you for your time and consideration.

I don't think this is a fantasy novel. I think it's urban fantasy, or paranormal suspense. This isn't my area of expertise though, so listen to what the commenters say.


I'm confused by who is what. The plot seems to start at the end of the novel.
This makes for a form rejection.

Dear Query Shark:

I am the author of (redacted), published by Publish America.

And that's where I stop reading. If you've had a book printed by any of these template houses that profess to publish but in fact do not offer any of the additional value of a publisher, for the love of Mike, don't mention it. Ever.

This is not a publishing credential. It's also a huge disadvantage. Once you've published a book, you're no longer a debut author. It's MUCH easier to sell a debut novel than a second or third from a writer who hasn't enjoyed robust sales.

Now that I am finished writing my next piece of work, I am seeking representation.

This is pointless. I know you're looking for an agent because you queried me. I know the work is finished because you know not to query before the work is done.

My point here is you have 250 words to get my attention. Don't waste them on warm up stuff that doesn't get us to What Is Your Book About?

Through my extensive search of the web, I discovered your blog.

You're joking right? If you needed an extensive search of the web to find this blog, I can't even imagine what keywords you started with. "Kind and gentle literary agent" probably. If you simply google Literary Agents my agent blog is #15.

More to the point though, this is again pointless. Unless you have a specific connection for why you found me or are querying me, you don't need to mention it.

My manuscript is a contemporary 114,000 word fantasy, that’s sure to please both male and female readers.

Because of course saying it would please "everyone" is too general right? This again says nothing.

People's reading tastes are more specific than gender. Not all women like the same book. Nor do all men. If you're trying to say it will appeal to men as well as women, that's slightly better but that's not what you said.

This is where you want to start your query. ------->Will is a thirty-four years old, dirt-poor, laid-off yet again, in the depths of depression and hoping for a better life when he is given the gift of a lifetime, an unexpected inheritance that changes his life.

With this new life comes a daunting task when he is whisked away to Romania to read two hundred years worth of journals. These are not journals of any ordinary man or woman, but a priest that was maliciously turned into a vampire.

Well, they're clearly not even the journals of an un-ordinary woman, since they are the journals of a priest. This kind of over writing is what kills a query. Hone your prose.

While Will struggles to wrap his mind around the reality of the supernatural world, his life and future hang in the balance.

Why? Here's where you actually get to the point that's interesting. Here's where the plot starts. Who's the antagonist? What choice does Will have to make?

For the journals lead Will to the truth about his future and the truth of those that surround him. Fate brings Will face-to-face with the Vampire Priest and is forced to make the Immortal Decision.

This is movie announcer phrases, and meaningless without visuals. What specifically is going on?

I appreciate your time and would be humbled if you would consider reading sample chapters of Immortal Decision.

NEVER EVER EVER dismiss yourself this way. Be humbled my ass. You are not a beggar. Don't act like one.

You've made every single mistake in the book, including being published by PublishAmerica but you are a writer, and as such you deserve courtesy and respect.

Pleased, sure. Grateful, ok. Humbled, no, no, no.

I never want to see this in a query from a writer EVER. I don't care if you ARE, don't ever say it. Don't even think it.

If you become my client, we are on the same team. We are colleagues. You're not a fucking supplicant.


This is form rejection for a lot of reasons, but mostly cause you didn't tell me what the book was about in a way that made me want to read it.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Dear Query Shark,

Investigative reporter Avery Bonelli became Chiquita non grata when deep-cover CIA agent Logan Nash accused her of publishing national secrets and ruining his career. Two years later, Nash shows up in her apartment covered in blood, and promises a scoop that will get her back in the big leagues--all she has to do is trust him.

oh I am so in. This really works: it SHOWS rather than tells with things like Chiquita non-grata.

Following Nash’s scoop, Avery investigates a series of high profile murders with terrorism implications. Instead of finding something she can publish, she discovers that all the victims were involved in leaking a the top-secret CIA mission into her mailbox two years ago; the mission file that Nash accused her of stealing.

The difference between "a" and "the" doesn't seem like much does it? Kind of picky to notice it. Well, I do notice it.  They convey very different nuances of what the mission in her mailbox was: "a" means it is one among many, not specific; "the" is specific, the one mission that was in her mailbox. She didn't have two or ten there, she had just "the" one.  
THIS is the kind of attention to detail in your writing that I look for.  No, it doesn't make the difference in whether I will read pages, or perhaps even want to sign you as a client.

Where it makes the difference is in how much editorial work I'll have to invest to get this ready to send to an editor  You want to SHOW me your book will be as close to perfect, right down to "the" not "a."  And you do want to be that perfect. After all, this is your book, you want to get it right, don't you?

Now Avery feels the weight of a bulls-eye on her back as more people involved with the stolen file get slaughtered killed. She needs to identify the assassin and expose him before her personal obituary makes headlines. Outgunned, she trusts her life to Logan Nash even though all the evidence tells her Nash is the killer she’s trying to find.

Again, slaughtered is not the best word. It's not a synonym for "killed."  Slaughtered is the savage and excessive killing of many people. There's a quality of the impersonal in "slaughtered."
Killed is more personal, and doesn't invoke people as a group, but people targeted individually.

When I jump up and down and holler about the importance of slow editing, this is exactly what I'm talking about. Does every single word mean what you want it to mean? Does it convey exactly what you want to convey.

VICARIOUS is a 105,000-word thriller.

Enclosed is a sample chapter.

Thanks for your consideration.

I'd request pages here, no doubt about it, but fervently hoping the manuscript doesn't have more of this kind of not-quite-right word choices.

Avery Bonilla
123 Shark-Meat St.
On the corner of Acceptance Ln. and Pet Peeve Pl.
Blog Follower, NY 00000

ok, hilarious yes, but you know not to put your return address FIRST in an email query right? I've ranted about this at length.
Dear Ms. Query Shark,

Investigative reporter Avery Bonilla became Chiquita non grata when ex-CIA operative Logan Nash accused her of stealing national secrets. Two years later, Nash shows up in her apartment covered in blood, and promises a scoop that can get her back in the big leagues--all she has to do is trust him.

This is a really good opening. It's enticing. It sets up what looks like a real plot. I'm ready to like this.

Desperate to get back into journalism, Avery helps Nash investigate a terrorist bombing that killed his father and thirty-two others. She still hates him for destroying her career, but his charm makes it hard to keep her hands off his pecs and his … 21st digit. After all, she just broke off an engagement, and you can’t just go cold-turkey on men. It’s unhealthy.

And splat right here. It's hard to make a terrorist bombing sprightly and humorous. The tone of the writing (sprightly, humorous) doesn't match the content (terrorism)
But Avery uncovers a conspiracy that’s more hazardous to her health than Y-chromosome withdrawals. The terrorist attack was engineered by the CIA to protect one man from an FBI investigation: Nash’s father, chief engineer of an airborne strain of HIV. And he’s still alive. Now she’s hunted by people who believe she’s a threat to their virus project and to the terrorist’s identity. Avery becomes a subject in her own story and she’ll have to trust her life to the man who just might turn out to be the terrorist she’s been hunting.

Whoa. You want to be lighthearted about airborne HIV and bio-terrorism. Yikes. No.

VICARIOUS, a 111,000-word espionage-thriller, is Jack Reacher muscle on a Stephanie Plum diet. It’s one of five finalists in the 2010 (redacted) Contest on (redacted).

Well, one good thing about comparisons is they show instantly why this doesn't work. Stephanie Plum books are lots of fun to read of course, but you'll notice they aren't about serious topics. Jack Reacher isn't lighthearted. Yes you can pair the two but that's a platypus; nothing quite looks or feels right.

Enclosed are five sample pages.

The five pages you attached don't mention either character or any of the plot you cover in the query letter. It's as though you sent five pages that have nothing to do with this query.

That's one of the (many) problems with prologues. When you query with pages, start with chapter one, page one. Leave OUT the prologue.

Thank you for your consideration.

This is a form rejection.