Sunday, November 16, 2014


Dear Query Shark,

I am pleased to present DONOVAN, a 102,000-word historical novel set in the 1880s Arizona Territory. This novel can stand alone or be the beginning of a family series. It will appeal to readers of Zane Grey and Joanne Sundell.

You're not presenting this, you're writing a business letter. Also, leave all the housekeeping stuff for the end. (I've hammered on you guyz about this for YEARS now)


When Adam Donovan is forced to shoot an outlaw during a bank robbery, he feels obligated to carry the news to the dead man's family himself. But he is not prepared for the consequences of his action.

This is a nice set up.

Adam is the eldest son of Irish immigrants and a confirmed bachelor. He is horrified to find the robber's 19-year-old sister, Jesse Travers, living in squalor in a canyon abutting Donovan lands.

Jesse is small, fragile, and jumps at any unexpected sound or touch. Her soft voice and shy blushes are a marked contrast to her reputation in the village, where she's been called everything from a gunslinger to a tart.

Adam is disconcerted by his reaction to Jesse -- seeing her against the background of her broken-down cabin, he feels an overwhelming need to protect her.

The knowledge of her brother's misdeeds keeps piling up: the outlaw stole his family's cattle to maintain his wild lifestyle, while holding Jesse captive in the canyon and beating her.

While he can scarcely control his rage at the dead man, Adam sees a strength in Jesse that strikes at his heart. It's more than compassion he feels for her now. It's love.

But Jesse has more secrets than she has revealed -- secrets about her dead brother. Adam must find a way to help Jesse overcome her tragic past and tame the nightmares that may lead her into madness, or his dreams of their future together will be destroyed.

I am descended from Irish immigrants and Native Americans and have spent most of my life immersed in their histories. I am a member of Women Writing the West.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


 This doesn't sound like a western to me. It sounds like a romance novel. (Nothing wrong with that either--romance novels are HUGE sellers, and hard as hell to write well.)

It's a romance novel because the focus of the plot as you describe it is the relationship between Adam and Jesse.  What he wants (ie the focus of the plot) is "their future together"

 No matter what you want to call it, I think it sounds pretty interesting, and I'd request pages. I don't rep romance or women's fiction, but I am on the lookout for good book club fiction (think Major Pettigrew's Last Stand) and I'd read this with that in mind.

More often than not, writers get their category wrong in queries.  Thus, if the story sounds interesting, and you've called it science fiction, but I really think it's a Western, I'll read it despite the fact I don't take on SFF.

And you'll notice that this query seems like a mess.  It's not, although it could use some sprucing up. Even with that, I'd take a look at the pages.

You don't need to be perfect, you need to be enticing.

You can make mistakes, as along as you're enticing.

In other words, if you're obsessing over every last word and phrase, that's excellent as long as it doesn't get in the way of you actually SENDING the query. 

1. Some reviewers called my reference to Zane Grey "old-fashioned", yet he is an unparalleled master at blending the Old West with universal themes.

Reviewers? Do you mean beta readers? Reviewers are the people who read the published novel and write essays about it called "reviews" for their newspaper, magazine or blog. Yes I am snippy about that word and its misuse. Words are your business. Use them correctly.

And Zane Grey may be old-fashioned but that's not the problem. The problem is that your novel doesn't really sound like a Zane Grey novel. And it shouldn't. Zane Grey wrote for a very different reading public.  In 1912 when RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE was published, women didn't have the right to vote, and Europe was still two years away from the lamps going out** 

Writing ABOUT that time period now is tricky because of the changes in the world.  You may want to "blend the Old West with universal themes", but you're going to have a very different universe than Zane Grey did. Modern readers have VERY different sensibilities than readers of 1912, and not just about the obvious things like race and gender.

If you're just using Riders of the Purple Sage as a comp title, good comp titles should be within two or three (at most) years of the year you are querying. You're off by 99 years at best.

Even if you weren't off in time, you're off in numbers.  Good comp titles are books people buy, and Riders of the Purple Sage in its most recent edition sold fewer than 500 copies last year. That's not bad for a book that's 102, but it's sure not a number you want to tout for a novel you hope to publish in 2016.

2. Some recommended removing references to Irish immigrants, but it's essential background to the story and one of the reasons I'm qualified to write it.

This is a novel. You don't need qualifications to write it. It's YOUR novel in fact. No one else IS qualified to write it.  You don't need the reference to Irish immigrants because it doesn't matter. You could write this if you were a Zorastrian time traveling from the Persian Empire. Leaving it in won't hurt you either.

3. Some said "show, don't tell". Examples included substituting synonyms and repeating a sentence in different words but with the same sentence structure. But the original and revamped versions seemed interchangeable to me. If I'm "telling" here, I really don't understand how to fix it.

You're doing just fine here. You've done exactly what a query letter requires: set up the stakes of the novel, make us care about the characters, and entice your reader to want more.  Who are these critics of yours? I think you need to smack them around. They aren't serving you well.

"The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time"
--Sir Edward Grey may have remarked to a friend on the eve of Britain's entry into the First World War. First published in Grey's memoirs in 1925, the statement earned wide attention as a correct perception of the First World War and its geopolitical and cultural consequences.


Z.Z. said...

Isn't "confirmed bachelor" an established euphemism for "quite gay"? I was excited to get some lgbt fiction up in here, but then it turned really heterosexual. My disappointment aside, that phrasing should probably be tweaked.

Colin Smith said...

I, too, read this as a romance in a Western setting, so it should probably be pitched as such.

Two things impress me. First, the fact that, flaws aside (and I agree there are places where the query could be tightened and polished), Janet said she would request pages. This is an object lesson in being enticing over being perfect. Very encouraging. :)

The second is something I already knew but it hits home seeing it in black-and-white: you really know your business, Janet! Of course, as a literary agent, it's your job to know books, authors, sales, markets, etc. And that's kind of my point. No offense to self-publishers, but this is why I want an agent. I don't have time to become this intimately acquainted with publishing. But I would love someone on my "team" who is. :)

All the best with this, querier! :)

Ellipsis Flood said...

It's not really my genre, but the query does what it should do: It tells me wtf happens in the book. I've seen enough queries on this blog where I couldn't even tell if I'd like the book behind them or not.
And for a romance novel, I'm actually okay with the plot here, as you don't seem to go for the dreaded "love can fix your trauma" plot.

Also, ugh, I know this kind of critic/beta reader. These are often people who know the rules exist, but don't know why, and when to ignore them.

Theresa Milstein said...

Yes, it does sound like a romance. If this is a romance and we're showing the MC's growth, it would help to show why he's decided not to get attached to women in the beginning. I'd also like to see a glimmer of the person who has been abused besides abuse. If all he sees in her is a woman who needs fixing, what makes him stay around after she's better? It's probably in the manuscript, but I'd like to see a little more dimension in both characters here. I think both of these are quick fixes to make this query even stronger.

By the way, the "descended from Irish immigrants" part really has no bearing in the story or tell us anything about him as a person. I'd take it out. Use the room to address some of my suggestions above.

Anonymous said...

I'm not, never have been, and probably never will be a reader of romance...because it makes me want to gag. But this actually had me intrigued. Props to the author!

DLM said...

Z.Z., agreed, "confirmed bachelor" has a very specific meaning, and it's not "commit-o-phobic guy of the heterosexual persuasion". (I'm of an age where that was very much the only way to mention these things. Sigh.)

And now I must away. The Persian empire's oil lamps are about to expire ...

Amy Schaefer said...

This query gave a clear set-up - it made me think that, if I picked up the book, I´d have a glimmer of the characters and the basic plot. Like some other commenters, romance isn´t my thing, but I was interested in the frontier Arizona setting.

I´ll second the notion that a query doesn´t have to be perfect - it has to grab the reader. Mark me down as grabbed.

LynnRodz said...

A shootout at the O.K. Corral does not necessarily mean this is a Western, nor does a bachelor who happens to have his heartstrings pulled make this a Romance. There seems to be a more profound story here with Jesse's secrets and being held captive by her brother and Adam's own reasons for wanting to remain a bachelor until he meets her.

Usually this would be the last type of book I would pick up to read, but this query is intriguing enough I could see myself reading the first pages to find out more and isn't that what a query is suppose to do?

Laina said...

*whispers* Also please don't ask reviewers for feedback. Please. I don't wanna write that reply email.

Gifford MacShane said...

By reviewers, I meant those who had reviewed the query letter. Sorry 'bout that!

Anonymous said...


Not really. My cousin is a confirmed bachelor because he was career military in anti-terrorism before it became "popular". As such, even when he had leave, he had to keep two suitcases packed at all times, one by the door and one in his car.

He didn't think it was fair, or safe, to subject a family to his lifestyle. After a career in the military and seeing so many men treated poorly by cheating spouses, he swore he'd never get married even when he got out. That doesn't mean he doesn't enjoy ladies, he'll just never marry.

My youngest son swears he'll never remarry, confirmed bachelor, after what his ex did to him in Iraq and is holding true to that. He dates, but if it starts getting too close, he's gone. I kept thinking he would get over it and find someone right for him, but he says all he wants is to take care of his little boy.

Confirmed bachelor doesn't always mean gay.

Anonymous said...

It sounded like a good set up for a western romance to me, also. There's nothing wrong with that. They seem to sell well. The only thing I was wondering about was where the conflict is. You have the set up for some interesting characters, but what happens? Maybe the secrets is enough.

I love Louis L'Amour, so I might read it.

Good job on the author's part for catching the shark's eye.