Saturday, February 1, 2014



(1) Please advise me on my bio; I lack publishing credits and writing awards. My academic degrees, travel and research immersed me in international experiences. I believe I am qualified to set a book in France, a unique nation politically, socially and culturally. How can I emphasize that?

(2) Please advise on sentence length. According to your blog, each sentence should be read in one breath. It works for me, but I have a lot of hot air.

Your (2) cracked me up enough that I chose the letter even though I'm convinced you haven't read the archives closely enough.

Sentence length: If you are a trained opera singer, one breath gives you 150 words. If you're a hyperventilating teen in paroxysms of humiliation that your mother Hugged You! In Front of Your! Friends!!  it's far fewer.

For those of us in between one breath means 10-15 words at most. Shorter is better. Don't get too staccato (ie leave James Ellroy to his own devices) but focus on paring out everything you don't need and saying things the most succinct way. (Twitter is a great way to practice paring down!) 

Often you need six or seven revisions to fully pare down. You'll go from 36 to 32 to 28 to 24 words. Paring is a process, not a single step. Don't beat yourself up if the second revision is only 32 words. Let it sit. Go back with a fresh eye and take out a couple more words, or rearrange a sentence after some time away. [I took six passes at this post over the course of two hours and when I come back to in a month, I'll see more places to pare.]

Dear Query Shark:
Wealthy French attorney André Gensonné, specializing in art crime, discovers a painting of a woman who resembles the vulnerable girl he met in the United States two decades ago, just after his 18-year old brother drowned. (36 words) His failure to save his twin defines his virtuous existence; he strives to fulfill the role of two sons for his family and their four-generation law firm.

36 words is too many. Too many words is made worse when they form a boring sentence. Why do we care about any of this? And oh my Godiva... virtuous existence? I'd probably stop reading right here. Why do I want to read about anyone who could possibly be described as having a virtuous existence? Virtue is boring. TRYING to be virtuous when beset by evil temptresses... now THAT is interesting.

Truthfully though you've made a classic query error here: you're focused on setup and backstory rather than where the story gets interesting. You've compounded the problem with Andre Gensonne sounding tres ennuyeux.

The painting entitled Miriam disappears from the Musée de l’Erotisme propelling André to search for it and the woman named Anne, who has lingered in his psyche. Miriam has a notable history; the painting disguises an Impressionist work by Elisée Maclet. The two men responsible for the camouflage, Maximillian and Bertrand, skirmish over custody, value and ownership. But their primary objective is to fence the Maclet without getting caught.

Who is Anne? And why is she stalking his psyche?

At this point we've got way too many characters in play: The boring Andre, his dead brother,  their entire family firm, Miriam, Anne, Elisee, Maximilian and Bertrand. This is the von Trapp family without the soundtrack or a scorecard.

I've ranted on and on about this: pare down the number of characters in your query. This is why I'm convinced you haven't read the archives.

Right here is where I stop reading and send you a form rejection if I didn't do it after "virtuous existence." The only reason I would have kept reading then is that I'm interested in art crime books and I love France. Sadly, even that won't keep me reading after the bouillabaisse of characters served up here.

All clues lead to Montmartre—the freewheeling 18th arrondissement in Paris, but André has a setback. His grandfather (and partner) reveals he has a fast-growing brain tumor, and confesses he harbors confiscated art from Nazi-occupied Paris. He has also fueled an addiction for art acquisition and amassed a priceless collection secreted in underground storage. The holding encompasses legal and illicit purchases.

His grandfather commands André make restitution after his impending death, a request that will expose the prestigious firm to public scrutiny. His grandfather’s vices threaten ethical André’s family legacy—his sense of identity.

After his grandfather dies, André and Anne discover Miriam and the Maclet—exhibited on the walls of his study—his newest acquisitions.

This is officially a red hot mess and it's time to toss it and start over. Who's the main character (pick ONE). What does he want? Why can't he have it? Who's getting in the way (pick ONE)

What's at stake?

I am a junior-college Political Science instructor; my writing experience includes authoring academic papers and grading students’ research papers. I am channeling Diana Gabaldon! I travel extensively, visiting twelve countries on three continents. I have an affinity for France, originating from French heritage, gourmet cooking and fine wine. Last fall, I revisited Paris for five days, residing in a Montmartre apartment and researching most of the scenes in my Paris-based book.

You're querying a mystery. Writing credits for a mystery do not include academic papers and grading student research papers. Not now. Not ever. 

Writing credits are: work you've had published that has been selected by an editor for publication. That is an absolute ironclad standard. 

If I were to write a query for Murder in the Slush Pile, this blog would NOT be a writing credit no matter how much work I put in to it. No one edits it (well, the commenters keep me honest on spelling and factual errors of course) and it's not published. Writing credits can include short stories published in anthologies, or books (not self-published ones even if you had it edited by God himself.)

Your biography section can include anything you want about yourself but I strongly strongly strongly encourage you to not phrase things in a way that sounds like "why I'm qualified to write this novel." You do NOT need qualifications to write a novel. You can make it all up. Going to France is nice and we all want to, but you can write novels about France without ever seeing the lovely cobblestone streets or the dog shit on the sidewalk. 

If you want to include going to France in your bio section, enliven it by telling me what you learned there that made a difference in your book. It doesn't have to be a lot, a quick sentence even, but just something that makes it more than "I went to France and wrote a book set there."

I believe MISSING IN MONTMARTRE (80,000 words) will appeal to female mystery readers seeking a less violent story.

NO NO NO.  Comparative titles require TITLES and comparisons. There are female mystery readers to be sure, but there's not a title in the world that appeals to all of them. Thinking yours will (or saying it such that it sound like you do) is a serious red flag about your level of expectations. I am very very hesitant to work with people who have unrealistic expectations. This sentence makes me think you fall in that category.

Comp titles are tricky. You need to know your category cold. People who read which author will like this book and why? If you say Cara Black cause it's set in Paris you're missing the point. Yes Cara Black's excellent books are set in Paris, BUT is your book similar to hers in tone? Character? Tension? There are lots and lots of books set in Paris. Pick the ones that compliment yours. Don't know of any? Stop querying instantly and get to reading.

Bad comps are a huge red flag. You can't write fresh and new if you don't know what's old and tired.

Please consider my query;

NO NO NO. This doesn't even make sense. Consider your query? You're querying so I'll read your book.

I appreciate your time and consideration.

This is close enough to thank you for your time and consideration that I won't squawk considering I've smacked you around enough about the rest of the query.

Start over.


Entice me to read on.

And will you for Gaul's sake please read the damn archives.