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.


Unknown said...

Aside from everything Query Shark said, what time-period is this set in?

I lived in Paris, in Montmartre to be exact, until quite recently and, aside from the Red Light District, (which every city has), I don't quite know what the author means by "free wheeling."
It's certainly not the peaceful holiness of Sacré Cœur or the many (way too many) cheap tourist shops, or the little café's with mums, dads and grannies...all eating banana & nutella crêpes.

Yes Montmartre is stunning & yes it has the Moulin Rouge, but I know it for what it is, a beautiful place that's pretty ordinary -- it even has a McDonalds on the corner of Rue Livingstone.

Aside from this QL looking like a mini-synopsis, I'd stop all interest at free-wheeling, unless it was set in the 1920s to 1960s.

Raine said...

Thank you for your comment. I appreciate that the Query Shark mauled my critique, I am open to all means to improve. You nailed it, free-wheeling describes an different era than my contemporary setting.

Lemur said...

Janet I adore you! Sharky and snide, you make me laugh every time. I read this blog as much for the brilliant writing advice as for the sheer fun of hearing what you have to say.

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


I'm a female mystery reader. While okay, the Hannibal thing was a bit much for me, but... really? A less violent story? What does that even mean? Less violent than Nancy Drew? Less violent than NCIS? "Less" if not coupled with an example is meaningless.

And it's insulting too. God help the author if they send it to an agent who is a hardcore mystery reading feminist at heart.

Gore or no gore, a mystery is good if it has an interesting and intelligent detective, clean writing, an ending I can't guess from chapter 3 (or chapter 30) and sound reasoning, I'm sure I have other criteria, but that's a start.

Next, the author has a male MC but suggests a female audience. Ooopsie. As a female reader, I do like my detectives female when possible. While i have no problem reading male detectives, that doesn't scream female readership to me. Nor does anything else in the query suggest being geared to a female readership.

What? Set in Paris? You can set a book in freaking Cleveland and I'll be happy if you do it well. That doesn't mean females will like it.

What? He;s romantically intrigued by some female? So are 90% of the male detectives I've ever read.

As for "virtuous" LOL and ICK! (One of my WIPs has a madam of a whorehouse as the MC). Spare me the virtue, please!

Anonymous said...

A "fast-growing brain tumor"? "Impending death"? Sigh. I hope a little more research went into the rest of the book.

LynnRodz said...

Oh Janet, I have to admit that I, too, must get my daily dose of your wonderful snarky/sharky humor and I'm never disappointed!!! Today you were in top form and my pet peeve went on hiatus!

@ Author: I'm also convinced you haven't read the archives, otherwise you wouldn't have made some of the mistakes you have. To avoid character soup, you need to keep your query to two or three MCs. By naming the painting (Miriam) you just added another pinch of salt to your soup that was already too salty! Anne, I'm assuming, plays an important role and If I'm on the right path, I think you should stick to what's at stake for her and André.

As the QS said, you don't need any of what you wrote concerning your academics, your travels, or your heritage. I think the last sentence in that paragraph hinders rather than helps your query. When you first mentioned you were qualified to set a book in France, I assumed you spent a lot of time in France. Telling us that you revisited Paris for five days lets me know that perhaps you don't know Paris as well as I first thought. Staying in an apartment in Montmartre or a cheap hotel in Pigalle has no bearings whatsoever.

Even though the QS says you can write about a place without ever having gone there, I do understand where you're coming from. My WIP is set in Paris as well and because Paris plays an important role in my story, I want an agent to know that I know what I'm talking about. Still, my query has one sentence about it and even though it's the place where I have lived the longest and know the best, I simply say - I have lived here for more than half my life.

It seems everyone is being rather harsh here, but sometimes a few battle scars can help in the long run.

Raine said...

Thank you to all who posted so far. As noted, constructive criticism is exactly what I need. Lemur and Lynn, I particularly like your comments, they will help me learn.

Unknown said...

Hi Raine,

I'm glad to read it's set in a difference era. My own MS has references to Montmartre in the 1920s & then the 1960s

Recently, after sending my QL to an agent, I got a reply asking for a synopsis of no more than 100-words. Let me tell you, once you write a synopsis of 100-odd words you know 100% who the MC's are and what the main issue is. There isn't a word you can spare.

(By the way Query Shark, your 100-word flash helped me succeed).

If you write a synopsis of just 100-150 words, let it brew and then write your QL, I am sure it will help separate the important from the waffle.

And I would strongly recommend you let the reader know the era your MS is set in (with regard to Paris) as well as perhaps using something more emotive than free-wheeling.

Perhaps, poor & dilapidated (much of Montmartre had no power or even running water in some cases, for the 1st part of the 20th century) seedy, artistic, anarchistic, depending on what you are referring to and which era.

Good luck!

Lisa said...

Been reading this site, but I'm a first time poster.

Congrats on finishing your novel.

The query has too many names and adjectives/adverbs. We do need to use them; but when it’s in excess, it forces me to pause so many times that I lose track of what is going on.

For example in the 1st paragraph:
• Wealthy French attorney André Gensonné
• vulnerable girl
• 18-year old brother (you could trim these syllables with twin brother since you then tell us he’s a twin in the next sentence)
• virtuous existence
• four-generation law firm

And the 2nd paragraph loses me even more. You might be better off leaving out the name of the painting (Miriam) and the museum from your query.

And the query continues this way.

Do you really need the 1st sentence in your 3rd paragraph? Let alone adding yet another name “Montmartre” and then the clunky “freewheeling 18th arrondissement” (9 syllables).

I suggest you think about not just trimming what you put into the query, but how your sentences are structured. Every noun doesn’t need a description. And it makes me wonder if your novel isn’t filled with these types of sentences.

Also, it doesn’t feel like it’s directed at a female audience. The MC is a man, with a dead brother & a dying grandfather. The only female seems to be the love interest. And in regards to less violent, I’m a female who actually likes dark & violent.

But there’s a good concept in here. I like the conflict and irony of his grandfather having a stash of stolen artwork.

Good luck.

Melissa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elissa M said...

This story sounds intriguing-- a mysterious painting of a girl who had gone missing years before, coupled with stolen art and family scandal, and set in Paris.

Unfortunately (and I truly hate to say this), the way the query is written makes me think the manuscript needs some revision. I realize that may not be the case at all. Writing a query is different from writing a novel. Still, if the query is wordy and confusing, many agents will assume the manuscript is the same.

By all means, read the archives and polish the query. But you might also want to take a dispassionate look at the manuscript to see if it's truly ready for prime time. Sometimes it helps to put a manuscript away for a month or so and come back to it with fresh eyes. Of course, an experienced critique partner or two is a godsend.

In any case, good luck with this!

Sarah said...

The problem as I see it is that you have two parallel plots: figuring out the mystery of the painting and getting rid of grandpa's Nazi art. They're tied by the awkward coincidence that grandpa bought the mystery painting that the lawyer was already looking for.

Wouldn't it make more sense to reverse the order of these plots?
Why don't you start with wealthy respectable lawyer being summoned to get rid of grandpa's Nazi art. Quelle horreur! Then, when he's already reeling, he discovers in his grandpa's collection a painting of a girl he once knew. Quelle surprise!

From there you can spin us out into intrigue, forgery, Paris, a long-lost love and a long-dead twin.

Theresa Milstein said...

I would suggest not using "skirmish" because that takes all the tension out of the stakes.

Sarah, your suggestion sounds really good! That would help with some of the confusion.

Erica Eliza said...

I got lost in the second paragraph. Too many words, too many characters, too much going on.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

The painting reminds the virtuous character of someone he knew, suggesting that there's some actual connection between the painting and the haunting person. But is there? That might make an interesting story, but the query never gets back to that. Overall there's something just a trifle arch, if I may, about the tone of the whole query, as if we're supposed to be impressed by the fact that it's about art and set in France.

As you suggest, the writer has not read the archives. This is sort of a plot summary – and not much actually happens.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

Raine - I love Paris like I love chocolate and I am sure you do the city proud.

But, this query sounds dull. And I mean this coming at you as a lawyer who wrote my first trunker about a real murder case from when I was an intern at the DA's office. An awesome torrid murder case.

99% of law is duller than dirt. 99% of torrid murder cases are duller than dirt. I wrote myself into a corner and bored myself to death.

I look back on it now and see that the only thing useful I got out of the facts of the torrid murder case trial are: 1) the premise, 2) the quirks of the personalities involved, 3) some of the backstory of how it came to trial (it was awesome, a seance was involved.)

The actual prosecution of the case was duller than dirt and as a total and utter noobish, that is what I wrote about. "OMG, did you see that! There wasn't probable cause for the third paragraph of the search warrant! Oh, the horror, the humanity!"

You have a great premise - international art theft with Nazi overtones set in Paris. From your query, I have a feeling that you approach and examine some aspects of this crime in an excruciating academic detail. Speaking as a lawyer, those details are likely duller than dirt.

Please prove me wrong. Please serve up a quirky delightful mystery dripping with the kind of Parisian elan that would make Poirot twirl his moustache in delight.

I look forward to the revisions.


Steve Stubbs said...

If you are writing for a non-academic (i.e., commercial) market there is a favorite writing technique of college professors that you might avoid. There may be a technical name for it, but your letter has several examples. “Politically, socially and culturally” is one. When I read that, I think, “Omigawd, a professor.” A non-academic writer would just say: “France, a unique nation,” and let it go at that, linguistically, descriptively, and normatively. I mention that because I can’t stand the writing style of professors, and there may be others out there who feel the same way. If you use that construction anyway, at least be aware that you are doing it and choose it consciously. Another example is: “The holding encompasses legal and illicit purchases.” Thank goodness you only string two adjectives together here instead of three or four. But anyone who knows anything about art history knows the word “Nazi” in a previous sentence means “stolen art.” Saying: “The collection was mostly stolen by the Nazis” sounds more intriguing and less academic. Your academic style is especially amusing in the sentence: “I have an affinity for France, originating from French heritage, gourmet cooking and fine wine.” The phrase “originating from French heritage” is academic style. The sentence sounds as if you are saying your ancestors were “gourmet cooking and fine wine.” If you want everyone to know you like to drink wine it would come out better if you phrased this: “My heritage is French and I like to eat gourmet cooking and drink fine wine. Yes, yes, I know that has nothing to do with the book but I thought I would throw it in anyway. I also smoke yellow cigarettes, wear a beret, and dislike speaking English to Anglo Saxons.”

Another academicois (is that a word?) is: “Montmartre—the freewheeling 18th arrondissement in Paris.” Anyone who does not know what Montmartre is should be able to discern from its use in the sentence that it is a place if the sentence is constructed properly. The rest he or she can learn from your book. I would just say “Montmartre” and leave out “the freewheeling 18th arrondissement in Paris.” Stopping the sentence to give readers a geography lesson slows it down. You also stop to give the reader a political lesson by emphasizing Montmartre is an arondissement. If you had spent 20 or 30 words telling us what an arondissement is, I would be tearing out what hair I have left.

That said, the story sounds interesting. Best of luck with it.

LynnRodz said...

Steve, I can see how you can construe Montmartre being an arrondissement by the way it was written. Montmartre, however, is in the 18th arrondissement, which is a section or district of Paris.

I don't think Raine was trying to give a political lesson there. Each arrondissement is distinct (there are 20) and conjures up a very different image of Paris and its lifestyle. I think that's the reason why Raine mentions it at all.

Steve Stubbs said...

Hi Lynn,
I think if you shorten the sentences and make the query a simpler and faster read you will see the point i was making. The author can go on and on aout how many arondissements there are in Paris all he wants in the novel itself. In fact, properly done, that could enhance the reading experience. In my arrogant opinion, it slows down the query and makes it less attractive. Try rewriting the query with some of e turgid stuff out and read the result to yourself and see if you agree.

I also suspect an editor looking for commercial fiction may look less favorably on something that reads as if it were written for an English journal than a work that reads like commercial fiction. Long strings of adjectives, long strings of adverbs, and phrases such as “originating French heritage” make it clear the author comes from an academic background. That may or may not be a problem. It would be for me were I the editor. Whether the author decides to write this way or not, s/he should be conscious of what it is and what it says to the reader. Agree or disagree, it is just an opinion.

If the author agrees, s/he could have a crit reader (aka critter) scan the end product and point out these things before sending it to an unforgiving editor..

LynnRodz said...

Hi Steve, I couldn't agree more with what you've said and most of the other comments above attest to that as well. Yes, the sentences need to be shortened and a lot of what was written has no place in a query.

All of us give an opinion (arrogant, humble, or otherwise) when we comment here. Most of us do so to help each other out. I think the comments on this blog are just as helpful as reading the queries and the QS's suggestions.

MsButton said...

Gosh, I could have saved tons of money on books and even more time in researching the perfect query letter - I learn more by following her than I ever have before. Now if only I would trust myself to go through this test-hell myself! Cheers from Austria!

Anonymous said...

I'm a little confused by something the Shark wrote in response to this attempted query. The following seems contradictory: "Writing credits for a mystery do not include academic papers." Yet "Writing credits are: work you've had published that has been selected by an editor for publication."

Maybe for an undergrad, "academic paper" connotes something you wrote in five hours while high on weed. But for a professor, like the one who submitted this query, an "academic paper" IS something you publish upon selection by the editor of an academic journal. Alternatively, an "academic paper" is something you publish in an edited volume through Routledge or a university press.

So does the Shark mean that academic publishing is not a publishing credit? Is academic writing (regardless of discipline) an iron-clad exception to the general expectation that someone who can write successfully in one context can likely carry those writing skills with him into other contexts? (Prominent examples: journalists who write historical monographs, TV writers who write fantasy novels that then get serialized as HBO TV shows, comedy sketch writers who pen best-selling memoirs about being comedy sketch writers....) Or did the Shark mean that *unpublished* academic papers aren't worth the paper they're not published on, as far as writing credits go?

Actually this author didn't specify whether his academic papers have been published or not. I wonder if it would make a difference if he did.