Saturday, January 1, 2011

#193-Revised 4x

Eleven-year-old Jeremy Bleamy is heartbroken after leaving his dog and friends behind when the 1802 drought forces his family to move from Scotland to London. Too soon, he watches his father die of consumption. A night later, he follows his mother's lonely footprints in the snow where they end at the edge of London Bridge. He almost follows her, but his grief turns to rage and he vows to persevere.

You've spent 71 words here setting the scene. It's not bad but it's not what's important. What's important is the PLOT. What choices does Jeremy have to make? Ok, he makes the choice not to jump in the river, but that's not the plot, that's backstory at this point.

And 71 words is 1/3 of your query: instead of using it on backstory, show us more of the plot and stakes.

Your story starts here------>Hope and money gone, left alone to fend for himself, Jeremy drags his parents' furniture to a corner between two buildings. There, against the landlord, gangs and neighbors' objections, he makes his stand. With his smarts and a club as long as he is tall, he bravely fights off those who try to steal his parents' possessions.

I frankly don't believe this. He's 11. He's armed with a club and "smarts" I don't believe one kid can fight off any group of people. This isn't Japanese martial arts movies.  The fiction in historical fiction isn't about people behaving in unbelievable ways.

And because you lose me here--I can't suspend my disbelief--I'd probably stop reading.  Right now this feels like a very old fashioned morality tale.  Noble child, prevails against all odds---this is Boys Life magazine 1929.

Jeremy ekes out a few pennies a night as a lamp boy, lighting the way for men seeking entertainment on the rough night streets. But as the Duke Street Boys muscle in, demanding a sizable cut, Jeremy pits his wits against them and a growing list of foes – the worst are the orphan hunters, who wish to capture and sell him to the textile mills. They all soon discover this is not a boy to be trifled with.

What terrible thing would happen if the orphan hunters got him? "Selling him to the textile mills" doesn't tell us why he doesn't want that.

I also don't understand why Jeremy is so attached to furniture.

Jeremy almost surrenders, when he returns one evening to find his shelter burning and the hunters awaiting him. Unbeknownst to Jeremy, his neighbors have been watching him and they have developed strong opinions about this brave little orphan. Jeremy's steadfastness and bravery have inspired them – and those who prey on children are about to be taught that this young boy is not alone in the world after all.

You've given away the entire story here. The purpose of a query is to entice us to read on, NOT tell the entire story.

Also "brave little orphan" isn't a phrase you can use without irony in this day and age. It's too over wrought to be taken seriously. You have to show us why we'll care about Jeremy. Right now he's just a Bekins man in the making.

BLEAMY'S CORNER is a YA historical fiction novel complete at 76,000-words

Dear QueryShark:

In 1802, eleven-year-old Jeremy Bleamy is orphaned in London when his father dies and his mother commits suicide.  (unless how his parents die is important leave it out, particularly at the query stage. Get to what matters.) Left alone in a city whose dark interior rarely lives up to its supposed standing as the “capital of the civilized world,” he is faced with the options of following his mother over London Bridge or fighting for survival. Jeremy chooses to fight.

this is a false choice. Of course he chooses to fight. If he went over the bridge, there'd be no book. When I talk about choices the protagonist is faced with, I mean choices that are central to the plot. This isn't.

He takes up residence in a corner between two buildings, and he finds a job as a lamp boy—lighting the city’s dark streets for men seeking “entertainment.” The work is profitable, but dangerous, and it is not long before Jeremy makes enemies of the Duke Street Boys, a local gang to whom he refuses to pay “taxes.”

This is all set up. And why does he refuse to pay "taxes?" Surely that's both shortsighted and dangerous? It doesn't demonstrate high moral character if that was what you intended.

During the daytime, Jeremy searches for escape—for anything that can make the task of staying alive more bearable—but what he finds instead are orphan hunters who want to ship him to the textile mills, thieves waiting to rob him of his meager possessions, and a street vendor and his rabid monkey who both have it out for him.

Ok, and? This is a series of events. I don't have any sense of connection to Jeremy. Sure he's a waif in London fighting for survival, but that's a description, not an enticement or a connection.

In time, Jeremy befriends an old man at the post office, another old man who owns a bookstore, and even the Duke Street Boys themselves. But his problems are not at an end, as a war is boiling between the Duke Street Boys and the Mims—a rival gang from across the bridge. As Jeremy becomes the target of the Mims, his friendships, his strength, and even his fearlessness are put to the test.

The problem is we're very removed from Jeremy. There's no sense of connection; of what he's like.

BLEAMY’S CORNER is the story of a young boy, orphaned in London in 1802, who in his fight to survive goes beyond the point where most boys and even most men would quit.

You don't need a recap of what you just told me. 

BLEAMY'S CORNER is a work of YA historical fiction, complete at 72,000-words.

There's no plot here. That's a huge problem.
There's no enticement to read on. That's a form rejection.
Start over. Focus on plot. If you're having trouble figuring out what the plot is, the problem is not the query letter, it's the novel.  You'd be surprised how often that happens to writers.

Dear QueryShark:

In 1802, eleven-year-old Jeremy Bleamy is orphaned when his father dies and his grieving mother leaps from London Bridge. Left alone in a city whose dark interior rarely lives up to its standing as the “capital of the civilized world,” he is faced with the options of following his mother or fighting for survival. Jeremy chooses to fight.

This feisty and tough little boy (this is telling not showing)  uses all his ingenuity and fearlessness (telling not showing) to take on the city, battling street-enemies who prey on his vulnerability (doing what?), orphan hunters who try to enslave him (how/why?), and the Duke Street Boys—a local gang who will not leave him alone. (why?)

This is generalization of the worst kind: telling not showing, and telling nothing specific.

Although Jeremy knows little about city life, and even less about survival, he learns quickly. These lessons in survival sometimes come from the swell of friends Jeremy meets along his journey; many other times, he learns these lessons alone, at great emotional and physical cost.

Same thing here: all talk, no show, nothing enticing.

In time, Jeremy finds a profitable but risky job on the dark streets; in the early hours of the morning, he returns "home" to a corner between two buildings.

Same thing.

BLEAMY’S CORNER is not the story of a hero. It is the story of a young boy who does what almost any young boy would do: fights for his right to survive. BLEAMY’S CORNER is a story of triumph, and throughout all of Jeremy's struggles, he holds onto the one thing no one can take away from him: his ability to smile.

If this is 1802 he's lucky he has any teeth.  Again, no specifics.

BLEAMY'S CORNER is a work of YA historical fiction, complete at 72,000-words.

I get no sense of 1802 London, and no sense of the story. The first paragraph is the only one to keep.

Start over. Think of what specific events SHOW what happens, and SHOW character.

Form rejection.

Dear Query Shark:

BLEAMY”S CORNER is a work of historical fiction and complete at 72,000 words.

This gives me pause.  I doubt there's a  fully furnished world with such a low word count.  Historical fiction requires sights, smells, atmosphere: world building.  There are no brand name shortcuts in historical fiction. 

In 1802, London was the largest city in the world. It was the center of trade, commerce, finance, art, and government for the British Empire that devoured whole counties and continents.

Unless London is the main character of the novel, you're starting at the wrong place.  All this may be true, but it's not action. It's not plot. It's not character.

As London wallowed in its glory as the capital of the world, it was ill-prepared to handle the massive increase in population. Inept to handle the needs of such a large city, it was plagued with poverty, and laws were passed that attempted to weed it down. Children and women were hanged for petty theft, same as a man for murder. And if that was not enough, over three quarters of the children born in London died before the age of five. So much for the civilization of the capital of the civilized world.

Again, this isn't plot. It's hyperbole. And it's not very enticing.  If you want me to read 72K words set in London, why are you telling me what a terrible place it is? 

So it was in London in 1802 a festival of people and excitement, but a cold-hearted and cruel place to live. Where the rich and privileged lived in proximity to the poor and homeless; Where intrigue mingled with despair and hope battled misery; Where acts of sacrifice and heroism were often only found in the pages of Gulliver's Travels and Ivanhoe.

None of this is about your book. It's still hyperbole.

BLEAMY'S CORNER follows the life and wanderings of eleven-year-old Jeromy Bleamy, a mostly-wise, sometimes-precocious, and often-proud child who is full of what he would call unshakeable resolve…and what others would call courageous stubbornness.

How about you just tell me what he is instead of invoking other people. This device does not work in a query letter. I cannot over emphasize that you want straightforward simple sentences that tell me what the book is about.

You're trying to be all fancy schmancy here. It backfires.

I'd have stopped reading at this point.

“The evil of the city seems to unaffect those who have wealth and the cruelty of the world is seldom felt by those who have never fought for a meal. I, for one, will never see the world without its ruthlessness ever again. My eyes are not wide to its splendors.” Jeromy Bleamy. London, March 11, 1803.

Don't quote the book in the query letter.  At this point you've told me NOTHING about the plot. You've used up 292 of your 250 words and you've not answered the main question of a query: what is the book about?

Here's where the query should start but you're telling not showing.------->In 1802, Jeromy’s parents were forced to abandon their drought-besieged farm and travel to London. As if such a transition would not be difficult enough on one so young, Jeromy soon loses both his parents. Displaying the sort of resolute ingenuity and fearlessness one seldom finds in children, Jeromy takes on London, becoming a sort of urban Robinson Crusoe, leading the reader through an inspiring, funny, and altogether soaring tale of equal parts misfortune and adventure.

What happens? Specifically. Not "inspiring" not "funny" not "altogether soaring": what happens.

Telling me your novel is an altogether soaring tale is like telling me your kid is good-looking. I'm sure you believe it (I hope you do in fact) but I'm not going to believe you until I've seen the kid myself. In other words: show me, don't tell me.

I have become irrevocably attached to Jeromy and his heroic tale; I know that many readers will feel the same way, and I hope you will give him a glance and find out whether he is able to break your heart and put it back together.

This is a HUGE warning sign in a query.  What you think it means is you're passionate about your work.  What I think it means is you're the kind of writer who is more likely to take rejection personally, not be able to handle revisions with objectivity and be a total pain in the ass.

There's no reason to put this in a query. It doesn't tell me anything about the book, and what it says about the writer is NOT what you intend to convey. 

Thank you so much for taking the time to look over this letter. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.  Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is a form rejection for the usual: it doesn't tell me what the book is about. There are other problems as well, but if I were tallying reasons I'd rejected queries this week, that would be the category for this one.


Unknown said...

Seriously, I"m convinced that anyone who calls their own book "inspiring" has not written a very good book. You just don't call your own work "inspiring," any more than you'd call yourself "magnificent."

There's also this: The writing is stiff, there's poor grammar in parts, and most importantly, it lacks the lyrical way of hitting the ears that marks good writing. Even with a good plot, there's a plain old writing problem here.

You may have a plot. You may have characters you like. Good writing needs more than that.

I'm sorry, but it drives me crazy when people think they can write a great book just because they feel like it. I couldn't pick up a pair of ballet slippers and dance a great ballet, and writing takes something special too.

Lehcarjt said...

What is interesting is that I liked the first two paragraphs. I like the idea of exploring the underside of London in this time era (the era of Napoleon and the regency romance, isn't it?)

You lose me rather quickly after that though. So what I'd suggest is that you condense those two big paragraphs to two really tight, evocative sentences and end with something like this...

over three quarters of the children born in London died before the age of five.

Then say... 12 year old Bleamy... To me that adds a huge bite of tension.

My other real concern is that your prose here are REALLY, REALLY wordy. Where you should take 5 words to say something, you take 25. You need to take a look at your book to see if you are doing the same thing there.

I second QS that 72K for a historical is too short and if your word count is bloated by unnecessary words, you've got a real problem with story content.

Good luck though. I like the idea of a kid on his own in London.

Lexi said...

Ivanhoe was written in 1819; therefore tricky for anyone in 1802 to find 'acts of sacrifice and heroism' in it.

Anonymous said...

I, for one, will never see the world without its ruthlessness ever again. My eyes are not wide to its splendors.

Ouch. That does not sound like the voice of a streetwise 11-year-old in any century.

I'm not sure if you're aiming for middle-grades or adult. If the former, you need a less sententious authorial voice. Heck, if the latter, too.

This query contains some pretty sloppy sentences. If it's in line with the writing in your novel, both need to be revised.

Sorry to be so harsh in the new year. But this needs a lot of work.

Anonymous said...

Author, I strongly suggest you get your nose to the grindstone and READ about 10 or 20 great novels about London -- Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope. I say so because of the incredible roughness of your writing. The very first word -- your title character -- is mispunctuated. I'll go over a few more mistakes.

The use of "that" in your second paragraph is awkward; it implies that there was more than one British empire.

"Countries," not "counties."

"Wallow in glory" is poor word usage. "Wallow in filth" or "revel in glory" would make sense.

"Inept to handle" is poor word usage. "Unable to handle" would be better. Also, that sentence is weirdly constructed. "Inept to handle the needs of such a large city, the large city was plagued . . ." Laws were passed that attempted to weed down the plague. BLOCK THAT METAPHOR!

The rest of the query is riddled with annoying mistakes, awkward constructions, and poor word choices. I could go on, but I don't want to get tedious. You really need to learn to write at the sentence level; to use language not only well but properly; and to do that I will restate that you need to read.

Anonymous said...

I empathize. For me, learning to write a good query was in many ways harder than writing a good first chapter (or even the whole damn novel). The Shark provides a ton of advice on what "sells" the story (and what does not). There are also plenty of blogs on how to construct a good basic query letter.

My two cents: In regards to setting the scene--I'm willing to bet most literary agents know Charles Dickens' work and could infer the details of the setting just by saying 1800s London. So ditch the history lesson and (as the Shark says) get to the point:

In 1802, twelve-year-old Jeromy Bleary is orphaned in London. At first he tries to survive by (plot). But everything changes when (insert terrible, emotionally gripping conflict here). To overcome, he must choose (X or Y)--not an easy choice when (insert nail biter here without giving away the ending).

Basically 4 sentences with no fluffy language should at least get you more on target.

Good luck!

Jenn McKay said...

#193: your writing style, passion and sensitivity reminds me of me a few years ago.

Keep writing stories you love. Keep reading athors you admire.

Anonymous said...

There is also some pretty bad word choice and clunky sentence construction. So it was in London in 1802 a festival of people and excitement. Is a city really a "festival"? Or civilization of the capital of the civilized world. How about just the "capital of the civilized world?"

You can bet with those sentences, all the telling, and a 72k word count there is about 10k of actual book in there. Nothing wrong with the setting though. 1800 London was really brutal if you weren't extremely rich.

Anonymous said...

The laws that constituted England's Bloody Code were nearly all passed in the 18th century (some in the late 17th). The reaction that led to the dialing-back of the death penalty was already underway by the end of that century, though I'll grant that by 1802 it hadn't made much difference yet.

These laws affected all of England, of course, not just London. And they were passed as much in reaction to rural crime as urban. Basically a capital crime was anything a poor person did that annoyed a rich man, including damage to his country estate. (Hence the expression that one might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.)

Part of the problem was that the British nobility objected to founding a police force, so they tried to use the death penalty as a substitute for law enforcement.

The massive move to London by the poor was caused by the Enclosure of the Commons, when what had been common land usable by the rural poor was fenced in by the nobility for their sheep. By 1802 this process had been going on for centuries.

In all my reading of British history I don't remember the drought the writer mentions, but then my memory kinda sucks.

Stephanie Barr said...

Poor and clunky writing will trip up even a good query. Arhooley noted much of what I noticed, so I won't belabor the point.

Why should someone want to read this story? Because London could be miserable for the poor? Or because misery won't keep everyone down. If the latter, that should be the focus for the query.

Irene Troy said...

The premise of the novel – as presented here – has some merit. Unfortunately, if the novel is written in the same tone as the query, there is much work to be done. Putting aside, for the moment, problems with historical accuracy, there remain some major issues in style and plot. I like the idea of writing a novel from the point of view of an eleven-year-old child living on the streets of early 1800 London. However, I have problems with the character as presented here. I seriously doubt if a child – in any century – would refer to himself as having “unshakable resolve”. Is the quote from the book meant as a journal entry written by Jeromy? If so, this simply doesn’t pass the sniff test. A street child in 1800 London is unlikely to have had the education necessary to write at all, much less in a poetic style. Fiction writers, even historical fiction writers, may exercise a measure of poetic license, but completely disregarding reality will irritate and repel readers.

It’s wonderful when a writer falls in love with his/her characters. It’s equally great when writers feel inspired by their own work. Nonetheless, a query letter is not the place for such enthusiasm. In fact, admitting to this infatuation to any but your closest family and friends only serves to make you look unprofessional and, as Janet notes, a bit on the desperate, hard to work with side.

Theresa Milstein said...

This is a looooong query. The whole query is a perfect example of show and not tell.

As far as the quote goes, that's quite a mouthful from an 11-year-old even from 1803. I wonder if his voice matches his age in the rest of the book.

Start later where Query Shark and leave out everything she suggests. Show us his world and what he's like from his actions amidst his circumstances. Good luck.

SatyricalRaven said...

This writer has also posted many versions of the QL on WN and has received some excellent comments/critique - pretty much along the same lines.

Having read several versions of his QL's I feel that there many be a good story there but I am not convinced that 72K is enough to do the historial aspect justice and I think they need to go back re-read their own work, re-write and then take onboard all the comments and start their QL from scratch.

Good luck

Joel Brown said...


A cool setting, but be careful. Swift (Gulliver) wrote 75 years before; Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe) 20 years after. (Wikipedia makes me sound smart and liable to parenthetical construction).

What would Jeromy know? Read INCREDIBLY LOUD AND EXTREMELY CLOSE for an example of organic knowledge, a child wandering in a city and the loss of loved ones.

What would he know? The King James Bible. The Book of Common Prayer. (And Grimm? 1812 … and in German. Wiki: Joseph Jacob’s sources.) He would know fairy tales and legends and ghost stories. That is what he understands. (Caveat NEVERWHERE.)

But source him from one area before London … not, say, Cornwall *and* Nottingham (no real trains before 1829).

But that’s the nature of research. You can’t mention steam, trains, any Arthurian froth. But you can show fear of the English rabble. Hatred of the French rabble. Napoleon. Always Napoleon. (See: Aubrey–Maturin).

Don’t let the research intimidate you, but don’t be flippant about it, either.

And the rest? If you submit a revision after all of us, we know you can handle it.

It may be the best of times, the worst of times, but you gotta show it.

Anonymous said...

Sources may differ, but I'd be awfully surprised if China and India didn't have cities larger than London in 1800. Paris probably also came pretty close.

I'm particularly bothered by the sentence: "As if such a transition would not be difficult enough on one so young, Jeromy soon loses both his parents." Undergoing difficult transitions don't increase the chances of your parents dying --- the idea that good fortune and bad fortune come in "clumps" or "waves" is a superstition that may belong in some spoken dialogue, but a third-person narrative really shouldn't indulge in that kind of thing.

If I were writing this, I'd use the sentence to touch on how the protag is affected by the loss of his parents. Were they abusive, and he's glad to be free of them? Distant, and he couldn't care less? Or loving, and the loss is crushing? Any of these help develop him.

Rivka said...

I couldn't get past the typo in the title. It is a bad omen when a writer cannot see a quotation mark for an apostrophe.

Timothy Fish said...

"This gives me pause. I doubt there's a fully furnished world with such a low word count. Historical fiction requires sights, smells, atmosphere: world building."

While I can imagine that there are plenty of other reasons why this story should be more than 72,000 words, your statement simply doesn't hold water. I've seen much shorter stories that with well furnished worlds. If readers of historical fiction want longer stories, that should be reason enough to write them, but it just isn't true that longer stories are a necessity of the genre.

Julie Weathers said...

Ouch. I fear Query Shark much less than some of her readers and I'm terrified of Query Shark.

Author, QS is right. Most of this query is a description of a place. Unless the place is a living thing with emotions and a journey, it isn't your focus. Most stories are either character driven or plot driven, not place driven.

Take out your description of London. Start with Jeremy. Jeremy has a goal. These are his obstacles. If he fails, this will happen. Then add in an interesting detail about London within the context of Jeremy's story.

You could have an intriguing story here, but no one knows. All we know is London is a terrible place and that doesn't make a novel.

I'll leave the nitpicking of grammar to others. I just write. I don't know which rule I'm following or breaking as I do so.

As to the length. I agree with QS. You can't assume people are familiar with the time period. It takes time and effort to build your world. Your sentences tend to be wordy in the query, so I have to assume they are in the novel also. That really cuts down on how much world building you've done.

"I have become irrevocably attached to Jeromy and his heroic tale; I know that many readers will feel the same way, and I hope you will give him a glance and find out whether he is able to break your heart and put it back together."

You didn't show any of why the character would have any emotional appeal to the reader. We have to assume you love your work. Most writers do unless they're at the "I hate you and I never want to see you again" stage.

Again, I have to agree with QS. I have admitted in public I really like my current WIP. I hope others will like it, but I know without a doubt there are others who are going to hate it. Putting in a query letter how much you love your work unsettles me. I'm not sure I would even beta read it because I'm pretty sure many suggestions would be met with hostility. Maybe my gut reaction is wrong. I hope so.

Good luck with the project. Don't give up. Just focus on what's important...your character, not his location.

Jo Bourne said...

siebendack is correct. In 1800, Beijing was far larger than London.

M. G. E. said...

Wow... is there any nice way to say this--I don't think so. Just, know I'm not trying to be harsh.

But (here it comes), this is one of the worst queries I have ever seen.

Not just on this site, but across the several top query-critiquing sites around the net.

It's like you knew what agents widely say never to do, and did it on purpose.

I was all setup to do a line by line critique, but I'm quite sure that would exceed my word limit here, and from the massive response it's already gotten, it's clear that the others have gone over everything pretty well already.

Author, I strongly suggest you go read Miss Snark's query blog from beginning to end, then Query Shark's entire site, then come back here and submit a revision (I've done the same myself, it's worth it).

Should take you a minimum of a week. Then scrap this query (maybe laugh at it a bit, in that kind of way that the tragic past eventually becomes funny even to us) and write a new query from scratch.

Here's the Shark's own query tips:

"1. A query letter is a business letter

2. A query letter requires "show don't tell" just exactly like your novel does

3. A query letter MUST tell an agent what the book is about.
3a. Who is the main character?
3b. What happens to her?
3c. What choice does s/he face?
3d. What terrible thing will happen because of that choice?

4. A query letter should include the word count, the title and any publishing credits you have: Don't have pub credits? Don't worry. Don't reach either.

(the novel has to be finished. You don't have to say it is, but just know it)

5. A query letter must avoid several instant-rejection phrases:
fiction novel
sure best seller
film potential
"dear agent"/"dear sir or madam"

6. Things to avoid in query letters:
Don't beg.
Don't flatter.
Don't demean yourself.
Don't quote rejection letters
Don't quote critique groups, friends, paid editors or conference contacts.
Don't ask rhetorical questions."

Gisele said...

Before Dickens and his string of pauper orphans, there was Jeromy Bleamy!

An orphan in London in the 1800s is an interesting scenario. I could be intrigued by it. However, that is the only pertinent information that can be gathered from this query. All else falls under the categories of either fluff or; writer giving props to self, which could be paraphrased as: "I'm the writer and I think this book is awesome."

For the love of chum! Do not give your own book the two thumbs-up in the query.

I am not sure whether the writer has looked over the Shark's archives since some transgressions were committed. So, to recap:

"How to Catch a Shark: The Golden-fin Rules to a Buoyant Bait (I mean, query)":

1) What's the book about? (What does the MC want? What's the struggle? What's at stake?)

2) Doesn't answer what's the book about? Then, leave it out.

3) Why should I care? Or, reasons NOT to stop reading.

4) Clarity of thought is king! Make sure your query is clear and simple.

5) Keep it at 250 words.

K. Andrew Smith said...

I agree with most of the comments here, except for one comment made by arhooley.

"Wallow in glory" is poor word usage. "Wallow in filth" or "revel in glory" would make sense.

I actually think "wallow in glory" is a great use of words here, because the contrast is so profound. By my reading, the author is showing how London is both a glory and a pigsty. In fact, I think this one phrase shows more than the rest of the query letter combined.

Joseph said...


Ivanhoe was written in 1819 so it's a bit of a sloppy allusion to use. I'm hoping the details in the book ring true because people will notice.

I enjoy the notion of an orphan making his way through old time London, although Charles Dickens wrote that book a million times, but there are some things wrong here.

I think the number one thing wrong with this story is that you've written a book about a boy who would never have had access to the necessary education to make him as erudite and self possessed as you want him to be. Does he have a rough exterior that masks a deep intelligence? If so, tell us, because that's more interesting, believable and, really, tragic, in a way.

Which is why I asked about unaffect. I'm not being obnoxious, just wondering if it's part of the character's voice.

Joseph said...

I just read through all the comments and I'm amused at how we've all kind of picked at the same stray threads. Once in a while you see a query letter that hits the snark zeitgeist, huh? I'm hoping the author doesn't get discouraged though. I like the idea of the story, I just don't think the query letter is effective.

I also liked wallow in glory. It's evocative.

Karo_Jachs said...

People have mentionned that Ivanhoe is not a good intertextual reference in this context and I'd like to point out that neither is Gulliver's travels - it's a satire, not an epic story of heroism and sacrifice. I wonder what act of heroic sacrifice is supposed to inspire the reader in Gulliver's travels - Gulliver pissing out the fire in the Liliputian palace?

The point of satire is to show the absurdities of human nature and society, the pettiness, the foolishness, the brute selfishness - not to provide inspiration for weary souls, present a vision of utopia or evoke the glory of a nobler past.

You don't read a satire for an account of heroic acts of self-sacrifice.

JS said...

See, I presumed that Jeromy (wow, how I hate that spelling--I've never seen it before and I don't want to see it again) was writing the flowery 1803 journal entry after he had magically been saved from the privation of the street orphan a la Oliver Twist, seeing as the actual action of the book is presumably set in 1802, or at least as far as I could decipher from the query.

So that part made sense to me, though it is quite a cliche of the "impoverished orphan made good" genre, and has been since the 1850s (Mrs. Craik's John Halifax, Gentleman is a particularly noxious example of this). But don't revisit a 150-year-old cliche unless you have something new to bring to it, and even if you do it's not something you would lead with in your query.

To be quite honest, the only thing this reminded me of is Bleak Expectations (which everyone should listen to). But, you know, not intentionally funny.

Rowenna said...

Well, as someone who loves both a powerful slim book and historical fiction, I disagree that a good HF can't be done in 72K. But it requires a very different writing style the verbose one displayed in the query.

I think part of the trouble is that you're keeping your facts and your fiction separate from each other--you've given blocks of "historical info" followed by blocks of "plot info." I'd assume your book worked the same way--which is not a good thing. Historical fiction must integrate, seamlessly, the history and the fiction. If you feel them indispensible, you might try integrating some of the punchier historical details with plot points in the query. Terrible example, here but: At 12 years old, Bleamy has managed to live longer than most London children, three quarters of whom die by five years of age (yes, terrible example, but see what I'm stabbing at?)

By the by--this is not as impressive a statistic as it looks, in context. It's estimated that 50% of all children in that time period died by age five. Make sure you're doing more than writing a "life was so rough" rag. Yes, life in turn of the nineteenth century London was rough--but rough living is not enough to write a book about.

Good luck!

Terri Nixon said...

There are many points I'd make but most of them have been picked up already so I'll stick with just two problems that leap a bit higher (for me).

If you're writing a book using British English you need to say "splendour" not "splendor" as that marks you down immediately as a non-native of the town/city you're writing about.

And - has been mentioned - your main character has a name/spelling that removes him from the norm too, for the time and geographical placing. If you must call him Jeremy or some version of it, perhaps Jerome would look better on the page. I wasn't sure if I should have been reading yours as pronounced Jeremy or Jer-oh-me.

Personally for historical writing I don't think you can go wrong with a good old-fashioned William, John or Robert ... it's the character that has to stand out, not his name.

Lehcarjt said...

it's the character that has to stand out, not his name.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. That has needed to be said for a very long time. (speaking of queries in general and not this one.)

Apple said...

Author, literary fiction these days tends to be tight, spare, and clean when it comes to word choice, and literary fiction tends to inform other genres.

These days writers have to earn the right to be wordy. You in particular must appeal to the modern ear *and* use convincingly historical sentence structures.

Your prose is not convincingly 1802. It sounds like a mish-mash of poorly imitated Victorian prose and modern phrasing. "So much for the civilization of the capital of the civilized world," is a modern construction.

(As an aside, I think your story would be more suited to Enlightenment-era London, viz. the stylings of Jonathan Swift.)

Secondly, when artists praise themselves in public it makes me dislike them thoroughly, and I subsequently have no desire whatsoever to patronize their works. It's symptomatic of the worst kind of taste: vulgar and pompous. Why would I want to read something possessing of these qualities?

My advice, for what it's worth, is this: write in terms of what you want to say, not in terms of what things sound like. At the moment, you've written something that sounds good to you without editing for clarity. As a result, your prose seems wordy and pompous. And for the sake of chum, learn the rules. Learn punctuation (no capital letters after a semicolon); learn grammar ("So it was in London in 1802 a festival of people and excitement"?); learn word-choice.

Marissa Doyle said...

Apple, I appreciate what you are saying about this query...but I just wanted to say that the "so much for..." construction isn't all that modern. Princess Victoria used it in a letter to her uncle in 1836 when expressing her disdain for some visiting Dutch princes. Frequently, words and grammatical constructions that sound modern are actually surprisingly antique (sorry, it's kind of a hobby of mine.)

Christina said...

Have you read E.P. Thompson's _The Making of the English Working Class_? Seeing as you are writing about someone in the English working class during its formative stages, you might consider picking up Thompson's monograph. It is a non-fiction work of social history. Also, it's a great read.

Anonymous said...

I've been avoiding saying this, because I know how dear a character's name can be to an author's heart.

But both the first and last name are problematic. The first is confusing (not Jerome, not Jeremy) and the last sounds uneuphonious. The combination-- Jeromy Bleamy. It just doesn't sound good.

Apple said...


Thanks for the correction. I didn't know the origin of that phrase; it sounded very modern to my ear.

Was it used in literature before the modern era, or was it predominantly an informal phrase? Perhaps I'm picking up on the register rather than the era?

Even knowing that, it just sounds wrong to me in that paragraph.

Marissa Doyle said...

Hi Apple,

I really have no notion as to when or whether it was used in literature in the 'modern' era or just as a colloquialism in speech; I just wanted to point out that it's best to be careful when judging whether language is "modern" or not, especially in this era. For example, refering to policemen as "pigs" goes all the way back to the early 19th century--it appears in Grose's "1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue".

wizardonskis22 said...

Well, the most basic of basic premise sounds good, and I'd read it. I really agreed with a lot of what has been said, but there are a couple more things.

A of all, "So it was in London in 1802 a festival of people and excitement, but a cold-hearted and cruel place to live."
This sentence is problematic, grammar-wise. I'm no expert, but it definitely needs something. A colon would do wonders, for one thing. This example is one among many in the query, which is a problem. These mistakes interrupt the flow and are fairly jarring in general.

B of all, I don't usually comment on names, but Jeromy is one of those few things that really gets me. As someone said, I'm not sure whether to pronounce it like "Jeremy" or "Jerome-y" and every time I see it I have to think about it for a minute. I would recommend changing it to one or the other, unless it was a common name at the time, in which case I still would change that because most people don't seem to know of it.

C of all, I completely agree with all the comments about Jeromy's access to the knowledge/writing/etc. necessary to write this/say the quote he apparently said. I don't know a single 11 year old who would say that, and certainly not an early 19th century London street kid. Unless he came from some rich family that lost its money suddenly somehow, he wouldn't be able to write that, and even so, the language is not believably that of someone that age. If there's a good reason for that, it's probably intriguing and relevant to the plot/character, and should be in the query.

That said, this sounds like it could be a great story. Fix up the query, and the story if it's anything like the query, and I look forward to reading your revision.

Apple said...


Modernism was a movement that began after WW1, so a phrase that is topical during Victorian times is pre-Modern. I'm familiar with the use of the term in modern English, of course.

My question was about its use when it was coined, i.e. whether it was used in formal registers like literature or edicts or lawmaking, or whether it was used in the informal register, e.g. in letters or speech, or both.

I'm no expert on this sort of thing, but the phrase sounded wrong to me, so I wondered whence my own instinct came. If the phrase was only used informally, then it might be the case that it sounded odd to me because I never came across it when reading literature written in the early 1800s.

I understood your point and acknowledged it; I wanted to pick your brain for more information. I like learning stuff.


David said...


Man are the waters chummed! You almost have to wonder if this has become a feeding frenzy or a collection of hit-&-miss-attempts to help.

It seems though, that whether ill-intended, sincerely intended, or otherwise, that the combined effect of these comments might have the power to reduce a writer's progress to a halt.

I'm not sure if this is true, but I know that many of us have to write a million words before we gain the literary dexterity to write well. (Funnily enough, it takes far fewer words to offer advice...figure that one out.)

I just wanted to let you know that your passion came through, and it is that passion that you should write for and with. Write everyday and write for yourself. Be humble, and be proud of the rare moments when your writing works. But no matter what, never stop writing.

Ignore the chummed waters.

For whatever this means, if anything...

Keep at it.

Lehcarjt said...

Ignore the chummed waters.

I respectfully disagree. Read the waters. Study every comment. Decide for yourself what is on the mark and what is irrelevant. (Naturally, there will be some of both.)

Be grateful that you had the opportunity to be chum. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of us who would be in your place given the opportunity.

Apple said...


My biggest gripe with the query was a deal-breaker for me, and it had nothing to do with the novel. It was entirely to do with the author.

If you suggest to people that they should ignore commentary and be proud no matter what, they'll return query letters like this one.

We don't like it, but quality is mostly objective, which is how literary agents and publishing houses and art museums make money. People want to see art that has been objectively considered and declared beautiful or worth seeing.

Humility and pride aren't mutually exclusive. I've read and reread the archives here and all the comments, and I agree with Lehcarjt (who I think is a long-standing reader and commenter of QS); much of the commentary here is sound, reasonable advice, even when it's harsh.


David said...

Be grateful that you had the opportunity to be chum. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of us who would be in your place given the opportunity.


No thanks.

David said...


Just one person offering postive encouragement to another, and pointing out that we always have to keep writing.

The critic's resistance to this sentiment is telling.

And I didn't say "be proud no matter what." This kind of misreading is exactly what I'm talking about. But then, I'm sure 193 understood.

And because I wasn't trying to help anyone but 193, I'll refrain from explaining my own message.

But I will say that 1) we creative types are still people 2) we're not all lethal swimming machines and 3) it has never been bad advice to sluff it off, pick yourself up and (insert more cliches).

Lehcarjt said...

it has never been bad advice to sluff it

I’ve spent all morning debating with myself whether or not I agree with the above statement.

I can see its merit (thus the debate). Blowing things off removes (or buries) the sting, makes it easier to continue, and avoids the dreaded experience of being paralyzed by fear.

And that is a good thing.

But that isn’t a great thing.

The more difficult decision is to face what hurts you and work through your fear. If you can’t do so (and of course it takes time), you are probably paralyzed already.

(I write this as someone who spent YEARS writing 98K words of 100K manuscripts because I was so terrified of trying to sell after my experience with my very first MS.)

The people I admire most on QS are the ones who receive the harshest critiques, but send in revision after revisions after revision until they’ve got it right. That's not sluffing things off.

Anonymous said...

I don't like commenting after a new query's up, but I just thought of something very concise (which is rare for me).

Why this title? Why the corner? Tell us about the corner.

Start there.

Apple said...

Hi David,

"If you suggest to people that they should ignore commentary and be proud no matter what, they'll return query letters like this one."

This sentence wasn't referring to you specifically; it was making a general statement. Your brand of encouragement is one that I think is a lesser form of that same danger.

Don't presume I didn't understand what you said; I understood perfectly well. I think you're belitting the commentary, which for the most part was sensible and helpful, as I said before.

The problem is that it may very well be good advice to give up on a piece of writing. It's never good advice to give up writing entirely.

Apart from that, nobody ever suggested he give up on the novel. I suggested he not brag in his query letter, and hoped that the query letter didn't reveal a greater problem. There's a difference between pride and egotism.

We're not going to agree, I think, so I'm bowing out here.


Unknown said...

Author, I suggest you read "Child of the Jago," a British novel about a streetwise little boy about the same age as your own character. It's set in the 1890s, but it should still give you some ideas about how to revise the novel.

Anonymous said...

Tell us about the corner!

Stephanie Barr said...

Rev 1 - Sigh.

Clearly, you love your story. You've built it full with characters and situations that mean a great deal to you. There's nothing wrong with that.

But your admiration for your story isn't enough to sell it. Enthusiasm? My guess is that most agents are not short on prospective author enthusiasm.

What they need, before they invest time and effort into your work (including a reading), is some indication that you can and have written a good story that can be sold for a profit. They need to see enough of the story that it means something to them, that they want to know what happens.

What I have here is "orphaned boy in historical London fights to survive despite enemies and friends." That's been written before by masters. What makes THIS story special? Show me why I should care about Jeremy.

A biased recommendation isn't enough. You're going to have to show them the story.

Theresa Milstein said...

It's definitely tighter. Now you need to be specific. Just like Query Shark states, don't tell us - show us. Who are these people preying on orphans? Why? How does Jeremy try to fight him? What obstacles are in the way of what he wants? Show through Jeremy's actions who he is.

Good luck with the next query rewrite.

Anonymous said...

Post revision #3:

I've heard of link boys, but not of lamp boys. And link boys were really an 18th century phenom.

The voice of this query is still heavy. You've done some important stuff: changed the odd spelling of the character's name, gotten rid of the moral/philosophical commentary, and dropped the history of London stuff. That's all good. But you're still not writing in a voice that's going to attract young people.

If that's true of the manuscript as well...

Well, this is beginning to look more and more like a trunk novel. Be of good cheer: the avg writer has 3.5 of them before she gets published. I had four.

jesse said...

2nd rev

This is starting to sound interesting, but it's too long, the main arc is unclear, and I don't feel any sympathy for the MC.

Why should I read this book? Billions of people with crap lives survive, but what makes Jeremy's story worth my time? I suspect there's a good answer to that question, I really do, but I don't see it in your query yet.

Kim (YA Asylum) said...

I'm sure that the author has figured this out by now, but his novel isn't YA. His main character is 11 years old which means it is most likely a middle grade novel. YA focuses on older character, usually around 14/15+.

Unknown said...

WOW - good advice for aspiring authors, thanks. The "show" don't "tell" takes a lot of getting used to.

Kim Kouski said...

I just want to know, who's the good guy, who's the bad guy and what will happen if the good guy lets the bad guy win. I want to know, what's the plot?