Saturday, June 25, 2011


Dear Query Shark:

A helicopter crashes. An airport is closed. Traffic blocks a highway. Are they related? Is it terrorism? Or something worse?

This sounds like Monday on the LIRR to me. Which is the biggest problem with rhetorical questions...they don't elicit the answer you think they do. And that's the reason I continue to tell queriers: don't open your query with any sort of question.

I'm a published author, and I've just completed (redacted), a 102,000-word thriller woven in part around these themes.

What themes? You haven't mentioned ANY themes. You've mentioned traffic.

Never EVER use the phrase "just completed" in a query. The last thing I want to read is something you "just completed." I want to read something you've polished until it gleams. There's absolutely no need to mention how recently you finished this and polished it up. This is one place where you can cut words, and you need to because this query clocks in at 440 words.

And "I'm a published author" has become code for "I'm self published and trying to hide it."

Of course, when I looked up your name, you're not that at all. You want to make SURE you mention the title and publisher of your last book. Here's how to do that.

"I am the author of TITLE (Publisher: year published) a non-fiction look at Subject. I am querying you on my first novel TITLE OF NOVEL." In other words, get the name of the publisher right there next to the title.

If you have more than one book here's what you do:

"I am the author of Number of Books, most recently TITLE (Publisher: year published). I've included a list of my books at the bottom of this email" and then include the list below your signature and above the first 3-5 pages of the manuscript you include in the query.

Here's where your query really starts ----->The story tracks Adam Robson and Zoe Diamond, two yuppie New York reporters, who witness what seems like an unfortunate but innocent helicopter crash over the New Jersey Turnpike. The next day they inexplicably become the targets of violence. Panicked, they flee to Mexico, then Argentina, and finally the Middle East as they try to learn who is attacking them and why.

They're the only people who see a helicopter crash on the NJ Turnpike? Really? You can't pry me out of NYC with a crowbar so I haven't actually ever seen the NJ Turnpike, but I looked up the stats and it seems like there are more than 100,000 cars on the NJ Turnpike daily. If they're not the only people who see it, why are they targets?

And their first response is run to Mexico? Not go to the police?

This is why short form queries are so hard to write. You don't have time to explain or world-build. You have to entice your reader with very few words.

Meanwhile, Ariel Katz, a tenacious Israeli anti-terrorism expert, becomes intrigued by the crash, suspecting that terrorists might be involved. Katz's investigation indirectly lures Adam and Zoe to Israel. Just after they enter that country with forged documents, Katz orders their arrest. Pursued now by two groups, Adam and Zoe find themselves running frantically into the Old City of Jerusalem. There a harrowing chase through the narrow, ancient streets and alleyways finally leads them to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christianity's holiest site.

Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? Right now you've got a lot of people running around the world. You've got a lot going on, but no plot.

With no way out, Adam and Zoe have to decide who to trust. Only in the aftermath do they finally learn the chilling truth that will haunt them, and the reader, forever.

Only one story has haunted me forever, and you don't want to promise to do that to me again. (Shirley Jackson's THE LOTTERY in case you're wondering.)

"Haunt you forever" is hyperbole. It's not effective in a query.

The style of (redacted) combines the pace and excitement of John Grisham's earlier books with the uncanny relevance of Wag the Dog, weaving together terrorism, international intrigue, and hints of politics, religion, history, and myth. (Many of the supporting details come from my own research.) Combined with the exotic locations in the novel, (redacted) offers excellent cinematic possibilities.

You're telling, not showing. Cinematic possiblities is nice, but I'm not a film agent. All I care about is whether it's a rip-roaring novel with a crackerjack plot.

I have written or contributed to 15 non-fiction books, with another forthcoming; I've also written for the (well-known newspaper). And I lecture widely throughout North America and Europe. I was prompted to turn to fiction when reviewers called me a "master raconteur" who writes with "a flair" (well known other newspaper) and lauded my first non-fiction book as a "tour de force" that "reads like
an adventure novel."

There's no way to say that stuff about yourself without sounding pretentious as hell. It may be true (I'm sure it is) but it's like telling people your SAT score. I don't really care why you turned to writing novels. I only care if this is one I want to read.

Can I send you part or all of my ms. for review?

For your convenience, I've also made the ms. and information about it available on-line at: (redacted)

you have your entire manuscript online? oh wait, no you don't. It's password encrypted. Thus it's NOT online unless I email you to ask you for the password.

I'm not going to do that. And I'm probably not going to go to your website to read pages. When an agent asks for the first N to N+1 pages in a query, you have to paste them in the email. NOT include a URL.

I can be reached as follows:

E-mail: (redacted)
Phone: (redacted)
Post: (redacted)

This info goes under your name.

I look forward to hearing from you.
Thank you for your time and consideration.


This query is 404 words, and I really encourage writers to adhere to the 250 mark.  Not just to keep it to the one page limit, but forcing yourself to write in this short form forces you to pare down your query to the essentials.

In the QueryShark archives is a template for how to get the essentials of plot in to a query letter.  I'm honest to god not kiddding when I tell you guys reading the archives is essential.  Yes I know there are 200+ letters in there, but if you read those first you'll save yourself a lot of time and revisions.

This is a form rejection despite impressive publication credentials. I have no sense of the plot, and that's absolutely critical in a thriller. I have no sense of the antagonist either.

Start over.


Anonymous said...

The first three sentences have non-human subjects. You want humans acting. Specifically, protagonists.

I'd take out terrorists, New Jersey, Mexico and Israel and focus hard on the protagonist and what s/he does.

Don't brag. It doesn't sound nice when anyone does it. Think of world famous authors-- most of them never tell anyone how great they are (at least not in public). And those few famous authors who do brag... sound horrible doing it.

Besides, if you really turned to fiction because of something some reviewer said, we might wonder if you have the dedication to stick it out.

Sasha Barin said...

I like the demonic implications of the title, but mention of traffic, airport or even helicopter crash doesn't excite me. Shit happens every day.

Here's the list of things which excite me:

-Out of potentially hundreds of witnesses, only 2 reporters are hunted. Why?

-Katz arrests the reporters? Why?

-Weaving together myth and terrorism. How?

Why not start with those?

E.g. - and I'm just filling up the blanks with random crap:

Zoe Diamond should get fired for what she just did, but maybe she'll simply get killed for it. Her boss Adam told her not to fuck with the anon tip they got, mentioning some myth-obsessed terrorist psychos, but she did anyways. Fun news for Zoe: like fifteen different counter-terrorist organizations around the world know her name and address now, and maybe driving up to that helicopter crash on NJ Turnpike wasn't such a good idea.

This is sort of a direction I'd take if I was looking to excite myself as a potential reader.

Side note: maybe it's just me, but words "innocent" and "helicopter crash" just don't seem to work together. Major bump for me personally.

Theresa Milstein said...

Who is the protagonist?
What does he want?
What's stopping him?
When he overcomes the obstacle, what's the next one?

I agree with everyone about not putting reviews in your query. Stating your publication credits is fine.

I'm surprised about this query because it does everything Query Shark says NOT to do. We all struggle with queries, but this doesn't follow the guidelines at all.

I've noticed that too many writers have people running away from someone without going to the authorities. If there's a good reason, explain it.

Good luck with the rewrite.

Anonymous said...

With no way out, Adam and Zoe have to decide who to trust. Only in the aftermath do they finally learn the chilling truth that will haunt them, and the reader, forever.

These phrases are getting ragged:

no way out
the aftermath
chilling truth
haunt the reader

I've read those words on book jackets so many times they're meaningless. If you gave us something concrete and unique from your plot, it would have more impact.

And a grammar note. "Adam and Zoe have to decide who to trust." That should be "whom," not "who."

jesse said...

This is a lil plot heavy. I don't need this much of the story to get a sense of the action. You could easily cut a few words. What I need is character. It's a dual arc, and I know almost nothing about the 3 MCs.

Anonymous said...

Am I imagining things, or did this query include the title when I first read it this morning, but now it's been removed? And Sasha Barin's comment refers to the title too. Am I losing my mind?

Janet Reid said...

formerly,no, your mind is intact. I failed to redact the website from the query and people were strolling over there. QS is only about the query so I redacted and then deleted comments that referred to the site.

That will teach me to do these without enough coffee!

Theresa Milstein said...

Bummer. I thought I had good tips in my 2nd comment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Q.S. and others.

It's a little demoralizing that, it seems, I can write a book but not a letter. (I've encountered this before, trying and failing to write book blurbs.)

Sasha: Exactly. Zoe and Adam spend much of the book trying to figure out why they alone are being targeted, even though thousands of people saw the crash.

Theresa: If there's a good reason, explain it. Zoe and Adam's first inclination is to go to the police, but then they encounter a very good reason to flee. It's hard to imagine how I could fit that into a query, though.

Q.S.: You can't pry me out of NYC with a crowbar. A friend of mine has a daughter who says that raising children anywhere except NYC is a form a child abuse.


Lehcarjt said...

Zoe and Adam spend much of the book trying to figure out why they alone are being targeted, even though thousands of people saw the crash.

Perhaps this should be the central point of your query then. As is your query seems to cover a lot of ground, which hurts rather than helps.

arrawyn said...

Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery' - I read that back in High School English class and I can still remember it clear as day! *shudders*. Also 'The Yellow Wallpaper' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. After all these years, both 'The Lottery' and 'The Yellow Wallpaper' are etched in my memory and "will haunt me forever"!

Vivian said...

Don't worry, it's a lot more demoralizing when you can write a good query letter but not a good book. Query letters are a lot easier to rewrite than novels, trust me. And it sounds like you probably have an interesting plot there.

Sasha, I thought your suggested query sounded great.

Alexa O said...


Don't let it be demoralizing. For some crazy ass reason, writing a book and selling a book require two COMPLETELY different skill sets.

It's like I'm constantly telling my (English 101) students: No one is born knowing how to do this. It's a very specific, formal (in the sense of FORM) skill that takes practice. A lot of practice.

I'm looking forward to your next try.

Anonymous said...

Alexa: writing a book and selling a book require two COMPLETELY different skill sets. Especially a thriller. I sometimes think I should have written a quirky character study focused on a one-eyed woman with a chicken who warns people about impending doom. At least it's easy to describe.

(BTW, when I taught writing at UMD, I told people they could learn to write well by reading. But I haven't been in the habit of reading query letters.)

Vivian: And it sounds like you probably have an interesting plot. Thanks. A handful of people who don't know me have read the ms., and I'm encouraged by their feedback.

Adele said...

If the crash seems innocuous to Zoe and Adam, then when somebody tries to kill them the next day they aren't going to connect the two events. Explaining why they would may well flood your query with too much detail.

You might find it easier to tell the events out of order - as in "As journalists Zoe and Adam flee for their lives they desperately try to figure out why they've been targeted. A recent helicopter crash could provide a clue - if they could only stop running long enough to investigate."

Elemarth said...

Terrorists don't crash helicopters. They crash jumbo jets. Not helicopters.
Yes, closing the airport over that (I'm assuming it's JFK, since the crash was in New York) would be very bizarre and a huge thing that would end up all over the news, with everyone wanting to know what had happened, because so many people would be inconvenienced.
Where does the traffic blocking a highway come into this, and how is that unusual?
Oh, and what could be worse than terrorism? China starting a war with us is about the only thing I can think of, and they wouldn't do it subtly.
And why would they have to go to Israel to be arrested? I'm sure Israel is a good enough friend with the US that they could arrange for Americans to do the arrests.
So, basically, this query makes no sense to me.

Stephsco said...

As always, reading through the query suggestions and comments has been tremendously helpful! Thank you to everyone including the author of the query.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I've read this several times since this morning. It sounds like it could be an action packed plot that would be fun to read but what is the relation of a traffic jam to terrorism? Why are the protagonists thinking that the witnessing of a helicopter crash makes them victims? Are they paranoid?

If you have such great credentials why not simply list them instead of claiming to be a "master raconteur" and "tour de force" ? Why not refer to one of those articles directly?

Though I am a novice in writing and the publishing world, I want to say that using foreign words to seem savvy seems trite, especially to those polyglots out there.

Steve Stubbs said...

Blogger Elemarth said...
"Terrorists don't crash helicopters. They crash jumbo jets. Not helicopters."

Well, that's true, but properly handled it could (1) create curiosity in the mind of the reader, and (2) reverse the cliche (an Alfred Hitchcock term and strategy.)

If you read THE PELICAN BRIEF, not for pleasure but to study the author's technique, creating and sustaining curiosity is part of how he does it. You keep reading because you want to know what the damned Pelican Brief is. When you find out you know you've been had, but it's like a joke. When you hear the punch line you know you've been had, and that is what makes it fun.

The modern terrorist cliche-stereotype is Middle Eastern origin, bearded weirdo, pissed off, looking for attention, suicidal, highly religious, hankering for glory in the afterlife, Muslim, etc. I say modern, because in 1890 the terrorist cliche would have been atheist, Slavic origin, definitely not suicidal, hostile to the caliphate, so the cliche changed over time.

If you used the Hitchcock technique of reversing the cliche you would have someone who is not religious, not Muslim, originated somewhere other than the Middle East, not pissed off, not looking for attention, and not suicidal. Sounds like the 1890 cliche. You would deliberately lay out all the specific elements of the cliche and deliberately turn every one of them around. So this character wants to bring down a helluva-copter (not a larger aircraft), does not want to die, and wants it to appear to be an accident, therefore not attention getting the way 9/11 was. It would take some real skill, but this could make the story work. It might also be too much to convey in a query letter.

The "Belial" moniker bugs me. It is probably because I have no use for paranormal, but there is something about calling a terrorist "Belial" that does not work for me. Maybe he could have a more normal name and work for Belial? Sort of like the bad Al Pacino film (I forget the name) in which the guy who owns the law firm turns out to be Satan. That seemed too realistic for me. Nobody who has ever hired a lawyer would be surprised to find out they are all minions of the devil. It would be better if the law firm had been owned by Mother Teresa and she had just not been minding the story very well. Too busy washing the feet of the poor in India with her hair or something like that. Maybe she did not understand what the practice of law is all about when she got into it. Now THAT would be reversing the cliche!

Uma said...

I went and read 'The Lottery'. Great technique, thank you for sharing this example.

Terri Coop said...

To her Finniest - rarely a week goes by when I don't make some reference to "The Lottery." To me it is a parable for just about any situation.

To JMH - you have got some serious credentials. Cool. Let the agent discover how cool you are after she is interested in your novel. If you can't bring a Judeo-Christian mythological spin to a thriller, then no one can.

I am a mega-thriller fan and am hacking away at my own. However, your query is scattered and doesn't hone in on the central core of what the dilemma is. A thriller must have a ticking clock and your query must outline it.

May I recommend a blog to you? The Kill Zone ( is a group of professional mystery-thriller writers who hold impromptu writing workshops through their daily posts. Last week they did a segment on the difference between a mystery and a thriller. It is subtle and critical.

I've attended a live conference workshop taught by one of the Kill Zoners (John Gilstrap) and it was invaluable. His manuscript critique included a note saying "This is good and you are talented. However, the first three pages suck." I have that note framed as a reminder.

If you are a New Yorker, get thee to ThrillerFest this week and meet some of these folks in person!

Look forward to the revision.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for the link. I'll check it out.

And thanks, too, for both your vote of confidence and your critique. I spent a lot of time and energy collecting feedback on the ms. after my first draft, and now, it seems, I'll have to do the same for the query letter. Sadly (though I can't imagine I'm alone in this regard) I enjoy writing books much more than query letters.

S.A. Turnbull said...


Agreed. Went and reread The Lottery. Worse than eating pickles before dinner; know I'll have nightmares now, for sure.