Sunday, December 2, 2018


Dear Query Shark,

MOB TREASURE is the story of Joseph, a recent New Jersey college grad, who discovers his recently deceased grandfather was a Mafia boss—and has millions of dollars hidden somewhere in Miami Beach.

So, is Joseph dimwitted? Cause I knew what my Gramps did for a living starting around age 6. Or, perhaps he was estranged from that side of the family? Or maybe everyone in the family never said what Grandpa did; he was just the old guy down in Dade County who smoked cigars and played canasta pool side.

The point here is that we need to understand why something that would seem to be obvious, comes as a big surprise.

Joseph never knew about his grandfather’s former life in the mob, but now, armed with clues scribbled in the margins of a copy of Treasure Island – the book his grandfather read to him most often as a kid – it’s up to him to recover the hidden millions. But he’s not the only one looking.

So Gramps leaves clues in a book. Why? 
Is it to keep the dough out of the hands of his other relatives?

Along with his best friend—and a crafty Art Deco tour guide—they embark on an adventure tour of the beautiful Art Deco hotels and mansions of Miami Beach’s Historic District. Hot on his heels are the mob, who claim the hidden money is theirs.

What does the sidekick bring to the plot? Why are they touring hotels and mansions?
I assume it's because the clues lead them to these places, but honestly, this is not a middle grade mystery.  Following a trail of treasure needs a level of sophistication here to make it interesting.

Entering a world of danger, mobsters, hidden casinos, secret rooms, underworld drama, and even a pirate or two, danger follows around every corner. Joseph and his posse grow more and more determined to beat the mob at their own game, finally uncovering a treasure that means more to him than money ever could.

This is a laundry list, not a plot.
The treasure isn't money? You told us the mob, claiming the money is theirs, was hot on their heels.

MOB TREASURE (78,000 words) is commercial fiction imbued with the mysteries of historic Miami—the mob boss version of The Da Vinci Code and reminiscent of the National Treasure series. It’s partially inspired by the life of Meyer Lansky, the “Mob’s Accountant,” who is rumored to have hidden over $300 million before he died.

I’ve lived in Miami Beach for over 20 years and have written for local publications on the arts, history and nightlife of the region. For the past five years, I’ve also been working as a tour guide in the Art Deco District of Miami Beach and have fallen in love with the beautifully restored buildings and the rich mob history, which inspired the story for this book.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

There's nothing surprising here.
There's no twist on a trope, or a stock character given a fresh perspective.

When I look for books to take on, it's essential there be some sort of suspense. Suspense comes from choices the main character makes, and what's at stake.

All that is missing here. 

If Joseph doesn't find the treasure, there's nothing to indicate the world will fall apart either literally or metaphorically.

Sunday, November 25, 2018



My ex killed herself in 2017. Writing this novel was my way of grieving. Now, I guess it’s my tribute to her. That’s why the impact of suicide plays such a huge role in the book. I’m not trying to be preachy or political or anything. I just wanted to tell a story where the main characters needed to come to terms with the things they could not change. Is there a good way to say this in the query, or is it best left out?

Dear Query Shark,

All he wants for Christmas is his timeline back.

Journalist Gavin Masters spends his days on ride-alongs with Deputy Vikki Valliant. She keeps the peace in Bordertown, where ghosts and monsters have sanctuary from the outside world. They’re mostly friendly, and mostly harmless. Mostly. So Vikki says. Gavin’s not just doing this because he’s secretly infatuated with her. Or so he says.

Dispatch issues an APB: Santa is missing. His elves last saw him leaving The North Pole--the strip club, not the Arctic. Hopefully he’s merely passed out drunk somewhere in the surrounding Mourningwood. And not some monster’s meal.

Santa and monsters sounds like a graphic novel concept. Is there a specific reason you need Santa? What is it about him specifically that's required for the plot.

Santa is a big footprint in a story. You've also got a lot of other things going on here. Too much plot will kill a story as quickly as too little.

Gavin gets separated from Vikki, and lost in the woods. He’s beckoned by a cry for help from his ex. There’s just one problem; she killed herself last year.

Turns out she’s not his ex. She’s Nimue, an ancient witch who lures victims by mimicking loved ones. She needs his soul--and Santa’s, once he wakes up--to power a magic gemstone she calls ‘Traumesser.’ She needs to ‘fix’ her ‘timeline.’ And for what it’s worth, she’s sorry.

But Nimue doesn’t anticipate one thing. Gavin is a time fey--albeit an inexperienced one--with just enough juice to freeze time for 30 seconds, abscond with her precious stone, and save Santa.

Once they’re home safe, Gavin discovers that Traumesser lets him relive his past. Now he can prevent the car accident that killed his mom and crippled his teenaged sister. He can stop the murder of Vikki’s fiancĂ©--even if he maybe wants Vikki for himself. It’ll all be worth it, if he can just convince his ex that her life is worth living.

Just as Gavin will do anything to save his loved ones, Nimue will do anything to get Traumesser back. And she has the power to make Bordertonians see things--terrible things--compelling them to commit suicide.

Gavin learns that messing with the past has unpredictable consequences. Each use of Traumesser only makes things worse. He catches himself making excuses, and worse, lying to Vikki. And nothing ever seems to save his ex. He wonders if it’s not too late to take it all back. He’s haunted by how much he sounds like Nimue when he says: “I’m sorry; I need to fix my timeline.”

A CHRISTMAS PERIL is a 110,000-word New Adult Urban Fantasy. It’s the genre-mashing melodrama of Supernatural with the dark humor and tone of The Dresden Files.

You're better off leaving out New Adult. The term is so amorphous it doesn't help at the query stage to use it.

About the author: I won 2nd prize in the 2015 3-Day Novel Contest for a 40,000-word novella titled ‘Bordertown.’ It had the same main characters and setting, but told a completely separate story. My goal is to grow this as a series.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

There is way too much going on here. Pare down. Give us the main points. Reconsider Santa as a character. What happens to Vikki? She seems to fall out of the story after just one mention. Because she's mentioned by name in the first paragraph, I assumed she was important.

To answer your question: there are a lot of deeply personal reasons to write a novel. Leave all of them out of the query.Why you wrote it is immaterial because the story must work independently of its origin.

I will not request pages just because my heart goes out to you. Losing someone in that way changes you forever. It enrages me there is not more help to people in the throes of mental illness, and that mental illness is often treated like some sort of bad life choice.

There will be ways to honor your ex's life later on. Donating part of the proceeds from the book to mental health advocacy groups is one. Just talking about the reason you wrote this book in interviews is another. All of that comes later. First things first: entice me to read the book.

Sunday, November 18, 2018


QUESTION: I hired two editors to help revise this query. So far, I've only received personal or form rejections from agents. I've read many blogs and books about how to write queries, often with conflicting information about what to include. At this point, I no longer feel like I have good perspective. What do you feel is lacking in this query? Do you recommend ending with a more personal or passionate closing?

PS: I read #303, re: your feelings about strip clubs

Dear Query Shark,

When overdose victims flood Portland’s morgue, 32-year-old Rebecca Perell discovers the deaths aren’t all accidents, and she may be next.

Is it important to know Rebecca is 32?
It's probably more important to know why she's in the morgue.
Is she a medical examiner? Lab tech? Groupie? Ghost?

Thanks to a felony drug conviction straight out of high school, Rebecca is forced to work in one of Portland’s dodgiest strip clubs, a methpocalypse of prostitution and violence. But her troubles soon turn deadly when Rebecca finds out her stepbrother, Dylan, is grooming her son to be a dealer.

Wait, what?
She's a stripper?
I thought she worked in the morgue? That first paragraph is now very confusing.

Also, you've now got a bunch of characters I'm not all that eager to spend time with. There's nothing interesting here. It's actually kind of icky.

Dylan will stop at nothing to destroy her. Killing strangers for fun is her stepbrother's hobby, but his obsession is making Rebecca’s life a living hell. Once she figures out what Dylan is up to, she must make a decision: risk her life and family by confronting him or run away. And if she runs, will her loved ones ever be safe?

It hasn't occurred to her to kill Dylan? That's the first thing that occurred to me.
He's making her life a living hell and he kills people for fun.
It's not like it's that hard to lay your hands on a gun in Portland and learn to shoot.

Given the choice between protecting my child from a guy who kills people for fun, and ..well, everyone else in the world, I choose my kid. I'd choose your kid too. Or any kid.

When you set up choices for the main character, you really need to make them feel real. My guess is most people would consider killing Dylan, but would be afraid of getting caught.  Rebecca would be afraid of getting caught and leaving her son alone if she was sent to prison.  So, if she can't kill him, what is she going to do?

"confronting him" doesn't convey much either. Is she going to yell at him? Threaten him?

And where's the kid in all this? Does he WANT to become a drug dealer? The money, the sense of being a grownup, would both be appealing.  Rebecca may have to deal with her kid not wanting to have Dylan gone.

All of this is detail, specific detail, and it is in the details that your characters come alive and their choices are clear.

Right now you don't have that.

LETHAL STEP, a completed 88,000-word psychological suspense novel is darkly atmospheric like Alan Cubbitt’s BBC series The Fall, and it features a blue-collar heroine struggling for moral redemption in the age-old battle of good and evil like Emma Flint's suspenseful Little Deaths.

You're comparing Gillian Anderson's character on The Fall to a stripper?
Maybe we're watching a different version.

While Lethal Step is fiction, the background for this novel is real: I worked as a bartender in a strip club. I’ve studied writing at a number of institutions including UC Berkeley, and one of my short stories will be published by (these guys) in 2019. Thank you for your time and consideration.

oh wait, you meant that Rebecca is a bartender, not a stripper? If I don't figure that out till your bio section, that's a problem. I assumed that "work in a strip club" meant she was a stripper, and I'll bet all these dollar bills in my g-string that the other agents who read this assumed that too.

You've made the classic mistake here of creating a villain who's two-dimensional and thus uninteresting. 

I get no sense here of darkly atmospheric. It feels seedy with no redemptive qualities at all.

To answer your question: don't worry about the closing. The entire query needs revising.

Bottom line: be specific about the choices Rebecca faces. Make Dylan a three dimensional, thus frightening, antagonist.

Sunday, November 11, 2018



1) I know Shark Rules state housekeeping goes at the end. And I know my first paragraph goes completely against that. But it seems to be exactly what this particular agent is asking for on their website. And I know they're looking for thrillers. Should I still follow Shark Rules?

2) A friend who directed an Oscar-nominated movie has suggested I query this agent. The movie was adapted from a book by an author who is repped by this agent. A lot of the agent's clients have had their books made into movies and apparently that's important to them. My friend is up for helping me adapt my novel into a screenplay. Does that carry any weight? Does anyone give a rat's behind?

Dear Query Shark:

(Movie director), screenwriter and director of (Oscar-nominated movie), suggested I query you since you represent (author whose book was made into the movie). SEA BLADE is a 98,000-word adult thriller. It is the first book in a planned series. The main character is a man of color I would describe as James Bond meets Indiana Jones. As a former (military) officer, I think you'll like the concept.

Never tell an agent what you think they'll like.
It's like saying "this is funny" before telling a joke.
Half the fun for us is the sense of discovery.

It's one thing to mention the connection you have to the agent in the first paragraph. Don't go overboard by putting all that other info there as well.

It was supposed to be a routine job for Jet Morgan and his ex-girlfriend Maggie. Recover a Mayan artifact that holds the key to a billion dollars in gold from a pyramid in Belize. Then smuggle it past the drug dealers into Panama. But then Nathaniel Lynch, Jet's old boss, Nathaniel Lynch, at the CIA, shows up. Things rocket from routine to insane in 2.9 seconds. And Jet and Maggie are thrust into an international incident - China's imminent invasion of Taiwan.

If you put the name Nathaniel Lynch first, we don't know who he his.
If you let us know he's Jet's old boss FIRST, then, it has a connection to what we've read, and it makes sense. This is flow. It's making sure your reader doesn't stop and think "huh?"

I hate artifact-driven plots with a passion, but that's just me.
(I did manage to watch all the Indiana Jones movies without any trouble at all.)

Lynch stole Ultra Top Secret U.S. naval plans for Sea Blade, an unprecedented new class of submarine, and sold them to Taiwan. Now he needs Jet, once the CIA's top covert operative, to steal them back and stop the invasion. And to skip the 'being killed for treason' part, he'll need the artifact to personally finance the unsanctioned mission.

Well, this is actually a rather good use for an artifact.

But Jet's no longer a spy. He steals Mesoamerican antiquities now, not secrets. So Lynch desperately offers up his new business partner Ricardo Lopez, the reclusive Mexican billionaire who murdered Jet's wife and child, to lure him back in.

The mere thought of killing Lopez calls to Jet like a needle to the vein calls to a trembling junkie. But pulling the trigger on that fix could backfire on him. Helping a traitor like Lynch is suicide.
He Jet and Maggie will be dodging CIA assassins the second Lynch gets what he wants. But if Jet doesn't help, the unthinkable will happen - war with China.

It's very easy to throw too much into a query.
You only need to entice me read the pages, not tell me about all of the plot points in Act One.

Put the word count, and other housekeeping items here.

With my science background, I was compelled to do proper research. In the process, I was shot at in Mexico, got hammered in Key West, dove with sharks and climbed pyramids in Belize, and fell in love with Panama.
I'm a chiropractor who now cracks creative-writing books. I studied writing at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and with Bret Anthony Johnston, internationally bestselling author and former Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University. Bret is up for providing a blurb, and (movie director) is up for helping me adapt SEA BLADE into a screenplay. With my science background, I was compelled to do proper research. In the process, I was shot at in Mexico, got hammered in Key West, dove with sharks and climbed pyramids in Belize, and fell in love with Panama.

Start with the interesting stuff.
You don't need the creds for your blurbers. If I know them, I already know it. If I don't I google.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

You can break the rules all you want, but it helps to understand WHY they are rules first. Putting the housekeeping stuff at the end is a rule because it forces you to put the story first.

Thus, putting something ahead of the story is ok, but you know to keep it to a minimum; just the info that will boost your chances of the agent reading the query. 

Early interest from someone about the screenplay is great, but you're querying an agent about selling  a book. "Interest from Hollywood" doesn't help sell a book; we know how nebulous that is. 

"Optioned for film" is better, and "started principal photography yesterday" better yet.  In other words, the closer you are to actually getting something made, the more it will help.  

Right now it's all hot air.  The reason you DON'T include it is that if you do, an agent is likely to think you don't understand how nebulous it is.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

#323-revised 1x

Revision # 1

Dear Query Shark,

Prophecies, Princess Willow Starmill has decided, are the worst. Especially the one that says she must marry a prince. The seer’s words prevent Willow from kissing her best friend, Finn Fields, the only mortal on Atlantis, but they don’t stop her from wondering what it would be like.

Let’s talk rhythm here. What you have is a long ass sentence of 29 words:

The seer’s words prevent Willow from kissing her best friend, Finn Fields, the only mortal on Atlantis, but they don’t stop her from wondering what it would be like.

Consider this revision:

The seer’s words prevent Willow from kissing her best friend, Finn Fields, the only mortal on Atlantis. but They don’t stop her from wondering what it would be like.

The shorter sentences are punchier, more rhythmic.

This is the work of revising. Everyone writes long ass sentences on that first draft.

It’s when you dig in, looking at each sentence and thinking “what can I do to make this more hard hitting.”

Timing is everything, and not just in comedy.

That cursed prophecy is all anyone can talk about when a prince unexpectedly visits from another realm. Prince George offers political strength, a marriage proposal, and eternal boredom. Willow can’t give him an answer until she sorts out her confusing feelings for Finn, but the more time she takes, the more dangerous her beloved island becomes.

And again, look at that last sentence. 28 words. Flab flab flab.

Unpredictable weather causes devastating damage. A fast-spreading illness affects half the population. Rampaging beasts, dormant for centuries, injure people beyond magical repair. Willow and Finn barely escape from a winged menace near the forest. Giant claws shred four young men in the mountains. The waters teem with deadly tentacles. Willow’s kingdom used to be a paradise full of bird-speak and flower-song. The only melodies floating on the salty air since Prince George arrived are dirges.

Let’s do a better job of connecting those two paragraphs. Often it’s as simple as repeating a word:

the more dangerous her beloved island becomes.
Unpredictable dangerous weather causes devastating damage.

Then  you just swan off into detail that doesn’t move the plot forward:

You can cut all of this:
Willow and Finn barely escape from a winged menace near the forest. Giant claws shred four young men in the mountains. The waters teem with deadly tentacles. Willow’s kingdom used to be a paradise full of bird-speak and flower-song. The only melodies floating on the salty air since Prince George arrived are dirges.

Without losing any plot.

People whisper about bad luck and ignored prophecies. Marry the prince and end this, they say. What no one understands is if Willow marries George, a piece of her, the Finn-sized piece, will die.

It’s not ignored prophecies, plural. It’s ignored prophecy singular. That’s a HUGELY important detail because one ignored prophecy that falls on Willow means she’s the only person who can change things.

Details like this catch my eye in the query. I really respond to meticulous writing.

Also for what’s at stake “the Finn-sized piece of her may die” is pretty low-rent. If I lived in Atlantis, I’d say “hey Willow, suck it up, people are dying here.”

And in fact, if she’s the noble hero, she’s not even thinking twice, she’s RUNNING down the aisle in order to save her people.

While Willow searches for proof that her prophecy is unrelated to the recent disastrous events, she discovers the truth about Finn’s past. A truth that could set everything right, or send Atlantis crashing into the sea.

So, Willow is trying to avoid her destiny, I get that. But the plans to get her hitched to Georgie better be proceeding full steam ahead, or there’s no tension.

In other words, she IS going to marry George unless she can figure out a way to save Atlantis.

THE LAST REALM is a completed 80,000-word YA fantasy novel that retells the story of Atlantis in the vein of ABC’s Once Upon a Time.

I had to look up this comparison, and it seems pretty apt, but it's also a TV show, and generally you want to use books, not other media forms as comparisons.

I earned my B.A. in English and my master’s in English education, both from Rutgers University. I taught 8th grade and 10th grade English classes. Currently, I am raising four readers who borrow a back-breaking number of books from the library, which makes me proud and my chiropractor happy.

YES YES YES!!! This is a lovely bio, with a delightful zing of humor!!! I knew you weren’t boring.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

So, we may have a problem with the book, in that Willow really needs to demonstrate her heroism by agreeing to marry Boring George to save her people. She can be searching for a way out, but what she can’t do is try to avoid her duty.

The essence of being the hero is that you Do The Right Thing even when it costs you. The hero runs IN to the fire, not away from it; toward the gunfire, not away from it. Make sure Willow does this.

Then revise the query and resend.

Original query

  • 1) After reading 318 shark attacks, I have written about 318 drafts of this letter. I feel like this draft meets your criteria and has the most voice. My beta readers are split. My objectivity died a horrible death about 53 drafts ago. Is the writing coherent and the voice clear?
  • 2) I am a SAHM and debut author. If a bio is required, should I just keep it to 2 sentences about my former education and teaching experience and stick it right before the closing? Does a boring bio turn agents off?

Let me stop you right there. I never EVER want to hear you refer to yourself as boring because you are a stay-at-home mom. You may not be curing cancer but you are raising readers, and by god if you don't recognize how important that is, I do, and I'm coming to your house to smack you around with the spiderpus.

Dear Query Shark:

Eighteen-year-old Willow Starmill hates shoes, heavy dresses, and the crown that her mother swears impresses other royals of the Seven Hidden Realms. Willow much prefers to roam the island barefoot, dancing or drawing swords with Finn Fields. When his mother dies, Finn is the only mortal left in the kingdom. Willow would give up her plant-magic, or worse, she would grow dandelions for the rest of eternity, rather than watch Finn wither over time. What good is being an immortal princess on an enchanted island if she can’t even save her best friend?

This isn't bad, or even not-good.
It's well-written.
It doesn't clunk.
But it's also not compelling. It doesn't grab me. It doesn't make me eager to read on.

When Willow learns that Finn will become immortal if she marries him, binding souls on their wedding night, she almost starts planning his funeral. She can’t turn her back on the prophecy given to her on the day she was born, the one that says she must marry a prince. Everyone knows the first day prophecies are never wrong.

This is all set up and backstory. It's not bad, but it's also not that interesting.

Willow’s parents remind her of that fact when Prince George arrives from another realm, offering political strength and a marriage proposal. The longer Willow delays answering the prince, the more dangerous her beloved island becomes. Unpredictable weather causes devastating damage, a fast-spreading illness affects half the population, and rampaging beasts injure people beyond magical repair.

Rampaging beasts? That's kinda fun...but you just toss it in there like a carnivorous rhino with wings is a small detail. (Ok, I made up the carnivorous rhino with wings part but still..)

Are these things happening because Willow is ignoring the prophecy that she has believed her whole life, or is there something darker at work in Atlantis?

Right here is where you finally get to the good stuff, and I had to wade through a lot of set up to get here.

Time is running out for Willow to choose between the alliance or the friendship, her kingdom or her heart.

There's nothing unexpected here, there's no twist. There's nothing that makes me gasp with delight.

I’m seeking representation for THE LAST REALM, a completed 80,000-word YA fantasy novel about first loss and first love. It will appeal to fans of Matched by Ally Condie, The Selection by Kiera Cass, and to barefoot, sword-wielding princesses from any realm.

Matched was pubbed in 2011. The Selection in 2013. Thus both books are too old to be good comps for you. You want books published recently (within 2-3 years)

I chose to submit this to you because, being the only actual fish in the literary sea, you are uniquely equipped to answer my question: On a scale of dwarf lanternshark to megalodon, how necessary are sharks to the success of a novel? Asking for a friend.

For you and your friend.
Opinions may vary, but I'm right, and everyone else is wrong.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Contact Info

As to your question: You can included anything you want in your bio other that the word boring.  You can talk about your eduction. You can tell me you're a stay-at-home mom.  You can mention you're a debut author. Yes, a boring bio turns anyone off, but you're a writer. Make it sound interesting.

As to  whether the writing is coherent and the voice clear? Yes it is, but that's not your problem.

The problem with this query isn't that it's bad. It's not. It's good writing. But it doesn't do the job because it doesn't entice me to read the pages.

The problem is NOT the query; it's the book you're describing. It needs something (a twist of some sort) to elevate it above the pack.

Go back to the fantasy you love to read. What surprised and delighted you about the book/s? Now, do better.

Sunday, September 16, 2018


1. My suspense novel is roughly 140k. Is that instant death? Should I not include the word count in the query unless required? There is a second protagonist that plays a significant role and is responsible for about 1/3 of the word count. I left him out of the query because I felt it made the query too cumbersome. This leads to my second question.

2. Is it misleading to not personally include this second POV in the query? He is from Kadyn’s past and is trying to find her. So technically he is represented by what's there already

Dear QueryShark,

The rules of Witness Protection are not only absolutely clear but incredibly simple: Keep a low profile and under no circumstances make contact with anyone from your past.

You’d think it’d be easy, but it’s not. Not for twelve-year-old Kadyn Hopplar. The past is so much more than just a reference point. It’s best friends and great memories. Most of all, it’s a time when she was happy. A time before her father was killed by the bad men.

She’s got the typical challenges of any normal pre-teen starting a new school in a new town, but while she struggles to move forward she also struggles to let go of her past. Only, her past isn’t ready to do the same.

The bad men are still out there, and they’re waiting for the smallest hint of her presence like hungry spiders on a web. When Kadyn learns that something has happened to her ‘old’ best friend and is desperate to find out more, they may just get their chance to pounce.

Walk a Web of Spiders is a 140,000 word suspense story and my first novel. I also write short stories, two of which have been published.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

I'm very VERY leery of a suspense novel that clocks in at 140K, because suspense should be taut, not languid. 

The idea that you just not mention the word count in a query is Textbook Example of Foot Shooting. If I'm intrigued by the query, and request the full, the first thing I do when you send it, is download the manuscript. My word processing program tells me the number of pages and word count automatically.

If you think I won't notice 600+ pages, and 140K word count, you're wrong.
If you think I'll just read it anyway, you're also wrong.
If I think you're trying to pull the wool over my eyes, well, we've gotten off on the wrong foot, and that's Not Good.

But the thing that really bothers me is you've got a 12 year old protagonist, and the plot seems like that of a middle grade novel. 140K is very much too long for a middle grade novel.
Including the second POV seems like a good idea if only to rescue this from sounding like a middle grade novel. In fact, if you start with him, and then talk about Kadyn, it might do the trick even more neatly.

There isn't a lot of plot on the page here. My assumption when reading this is that Kadyn is in WitSec because of something her parents did. But if people are hunting for her, well, the reason for that will help elevate this to a more adult sounding suspense novel.

First figure out how to cut 40K words from the ms. Every person I've ever met at a writing conference who says "this can't be cut" watched me trim 1000 words out of the first 30 pages without fanning a fin. 
Then, start over on the query.  Make sure your reader (me) knows this is an adult novel.

Sunday, September 9, 2018


I have yet to receive anything other than a form rejection from an agent with this query. To me it feels 'ok' but on life support, meaning it's alive, but barely. I feel that I just need an extra oomph to get it up and running in a manner that would garner attention. This is why I'm fully tossing the chum in the water in hopes of getting a bite.

Dear Query Shark:
The Warrior's Crown:

Eighteen-year-old Adira never imagined herself a hero, much less a savior of the kingdom, but she found herself in the middle of a dark war nonetheless. After learning that a dark entity, thought to have been banished generations ago, has resurfaced, she finds herself targeted for death, just for knowing of its return.

I'd stop reading here. There is absolutely nothing new or compelling about what you've described. You absolutely must make a story your own, and you haven't. "Dark entity" is too generic to be interesting. Darth Vader is a dark entity but what made him scary as all hell was the face mask, the breathing, and his menacing intentions. Even his name sounded evil.

Telling me something is a dark entity is boring. Showing me that he can strangle someone just by raising his hand and using The Force for evil...well, that's much more compelling.
Forced to flee her home after her adoptive father is killed by men who pledged their allegiance to the entity, Adira vows revenge.

Of course she does. Again, this is too generic to be interesting.

Seeking refuge at a faraway outpost, Adira hones her fighting skills alongside well-trained soldiers. When an ageless and powerful Seer arrives, Adira finally decides to reveal what she knows. This knowledge, coupled with a shocking revelation about her adoptive father, convinces the Seer that Adira may be the key to stopping the evil from spreading across the land.

Of course she is. So far you don't have anything different that the fifty other YA queries like this that I see every week.

As Adira begins seeking her own personal revenge and fighting alongside new friends to defend the kingdom, a conspiracy begins to unravel and could lead to death for everyone. The entity’s true motives come to light and Adira learns that the only chance for victory may be sacrificing her own life.

Of course it is.

THE WARRIOR’S CROWN is a Young Adult fantasy novel with series potential, complete at 90,000 words. It may appeal to readers of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series.

You may contact me at (email address) or @(you) on twitter.
 I have your email address already since my email inbox shows the return address, and the place for your twitter handle below your name.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

There's nothing here that's fresh and new.
You haven't put your spin on any of this.
Everything is too generic to be interesting (dark entity, faraway outpost, ageless seer). This could be Star Wars...but would you know?

One of the things that made Guardians of the Galaxy so fun was how the movie played with standard character tropes.

I don't know if the query doesn't do justice to the book, or you haven't written a book I want to read.

Go back to your favorite books in this category and read them again. This time watch for how the author surprises you, or twists a plot.  That's what makes a story individual.  Watch for how the characters are described that lifts them from generic to interesting.

It takes a long time to write something all your own. It's not a character flaw or failure that this doesn't work.  It's a step on the writing path. Every single writer learns how to do this exactly the way you are: by doing.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

#320 - FTW


1.) Money is tight for me, so I can't buy new books and my library can be slow to get requests in. A CP suggested reading a summary of books so I can find comps, but that feels dishonest to me...if I don't read a book, how can I truly know it's a good comp? I thought about leaving comps out altogether, but I want to highlight my MC is an anti-hero. What's your opinion on this?

2.) I struggle heavily with depression, so I've had to take steps to protect myself from querying. I have a separate email for queries only and check it once a week, and only if I'm mentally prepared. Should I make a note in my query that my response (should I be so lucky!) may be delayed?
Dear Query Shark

Sixteen-year-old Katrell doesn’t mind talking to the dead; she just wishes it made her more money. Fifty bucks here and there isn’t enough to support her unemployed mother and her mother’s deadbeat boyfriend-of-the-week. But when she accidentally brings her dead dog back to life instead of summoning his ghost, Katrell gets dollar signs in her eyes. Talking to the dead is one thing, but people will pay top dollar to see their loved ones again.

I really like this.

Her plan runs smoothly at first. Though the resurrected people, called Revenants, don’t eat, sleep, or breathe, they’re warm and look enough like their old selves to convince her clients to part with thousands of dollars. Good enough for Katrell.

I really like this. And the best thing: I can see how the precipitating incident will lead to trouble down the road. That's a good thing when you're able to get your reader anticipating things.

But things fall apart when the Revenants aren’t docile puppets like Katrell thought. Her clients forget their loved ones ever existed and dump them on Katrell’s doorstep. Revenants rob citizens of her town and present stolen money and jewelry to Katrell. When her first Revenant graduates from theft to murder, Katrell has a decision to make. If she stops resurrecting people, she’ll be back under the poverty line. But if she continues, the body count will keep inching higher, and the people Katrell love may end up in the crossfire.

I really like this!

WILDFIRE is a 65,000 word young adult contemporary fantasy with elements of horror. It features an all black cast and is #ownvoices for the African-American lead and struggles with poverty.

If it were possible to like this more than I did before, I do.

I’m an author from Alabama, and so far, no Revenants are stalking me. I have a BA in English Literature with a minor in Creative Writing. I was an editorial intern with (company name) Publishing for a year.

So far anyway (let's keep it that way!)

Thank you for your time and consideration.

I love this a lot. If your pages hold up, I think you'll get requests.

As to your questions: 

(1) I don't think you need comps here. However, if you want to include them, it's ok to have read summaries not the entire book.  It's not dishonest. 

(2) Whether you include this information is up to you.  Choosing when and how to reveal that you struggle with depression has no right or wrong answer. Anyone who says otherwise should be ignored.

I don't expect an instant response to a request for the full manuscript, but I'm always much happier to get the requested full sooner rather than later. In your case, I'd want it sooner cause I'd want to start reading.

I wrote a blog post about when/how to reveal personal details that may shed some light too.

Monday, August 27, 2018

#319-Revised once

Dear Query Shark,

When an asteroid hits Earth, Lauren Sand considers herself lucky to stumble upon a Cold War bomb shelter down a mine shaft—until she shuts the door. Time-locked for two years underground, Lauren has no connection to the outside world. Nothing but the final radio broadcast of conspiracy theorist Mick Parks, who claims a nuclear error caused the catastrophe. When the door opens, Lauren emerges into a drastically changed world. The sea has a new shore, breaking six-thousand-feet high into the Rocky Mountains. With everything she has ever known covered by salt water, Lauren sets out to find other survivors.

This is a promising opening.
I can see a couple places where the writing could use some polish but when I read a query, a good compelling concept trumps all.

Struggling to survive, Lauren is grateful to befriend members of a commune called Camp Genesis. But after weeks of camaraderie, she discovers it’s a cult. The women there are the charismatic leader’s chattel, destined to repopulate the Earth with his offspring. When he stakes his claim on Lauren, she flees.

Oh blarg.
Honestly, I'm so so so over this plot device. Women as chattel, women as victims. One of the GREAT things about a post apocalyptic novel is your chance to discard old tropes and invent some new ones.

I'll keep reading but my enthusiasm has dwindled.

With the cult leader on her trail, Lauren treks across the desolate remains of Northwest Wyoming where algae devour the landscape and holiday resorts have become fiefdoms that kill trespassers on sight. Death and destruction greet her at every turn until she meets homesteader Jay in the lawless last city of New Casper. Jay offers Lauren sanctuary, and the future she always dreamed of. But Lauren sees the future of humanity at stake and believes the truth about the asteroid will help give closure and peace to the dying city. Driven by her hunch, Lauren and Jay embark up the frozen summit of Gannet Peak to last known location of Mick Parks. If her intuition is right, his story may help restore their broken world and allow Lauren to stay with Jay forever— if the cult leader doesn’t silence her first.

And now, I'm utterly and completely confused. Fiefdoms kill trespassers? I'm guessing you mean the people who live in the fiefdoms. How do you have a homesteader in a town? And why is Lauren worried about the future of humanity when she's got more immediate concerns?

Closure and peace to a dying city? What does that even mean?

CAPTURE THE TIDE is a 65,000-word, post-apocalyptic YA novel.

Your first query worked just fine.
Why are you "fixing"this?
It's the PAGES that aren't working.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


After a handful of rejections, I decided to commit myself to the Query Shark archives and I'm so glad I did. I killed my darlings, waited, then killed some more. But, the question is still the same. Is it my letter or my pages that get me rejected? I need the Query Shark.

Dear Query Shark,

When the earth starts collapsing around her, Lauren Sand considers herself lucky to stumble through the steel hatch she finds in a mine shaft—until she reads the notice on the bomb shelter door telling her it won’t open for two years, when the radioactivity outside has safely decayed. But, thanks to the final radio broadcast of a conspiracy theorist named Mick Parks, the young woman knows it was an errant asteroid that shook the world, not nuclear war. What she has two years to wonder about is why no one knew the end was coming.

Now, standing on the new shore of the sea, breaking six-thousand-feet high into the Rocky Mountains, Lauren understands she will never see her Shoshone grandmother Jean and sister Ava again. They, and her hometown of Shadow Grass, Wyoming are covered by salt water. She has survived the end of the world, but to what end? As she begins her treacherous search for other survivors, Lauren is driven by the need to know how there was no warning that the end was near, except for the disregarded claims of a radio talk show host.

Hostile vagrants with saccharine promises haunt the desolate landscape and threaten her resolve. But when she meets Jay, nothing seems impossible. Lauren will learn that one person willing to ask why, and not flinch at the truth, can begin to reconstruct the broken world. Along the way, she will shed the doubts and guilt of adolescence and accept the most unexpected gift of all at the end of the world—love.

CAPTURE THE TIDE is a 66,000-word post-apocalyptic survival epic and love story. It is my debut novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

It's your pages.
This isn't the most compelling query I've ever seen but I like the concept a lot. I'd read pages if  I repped YA. (You know this is YA, right?)

I'm not sure finding out why the world ended is a strong enough plot; the world after all did end. No amount of knowing why is going to change that.

"Hostile vagrants" is the wrong phrase here. I'm not sure you can be a vagrant in a post apocalyptic world since it means "without visible means of support" and no one has a job in this new world, or money, most likely.

You might mean vagabond, as in traveller. 

You're also missing the obvious: why are they hostile? If I was traipsing around at the end of the world, I'd probably be glad to find someone else.

All that said, I'd read pages.

So, what's wrong with your pages?  My guess (and I haven't seen them of course) is you start at the wrong place.  Start with the door opening, not the door closing.  And you might think about the plot too.

Sunday, July 15, 2018


The first person viewpoint character of my novel is blind but the story is not about her blindness. It’s just something she happens to be. I know it’s a selling point, but it’s not a plot point.

Originally, I had it as a logline (A blind girl and her best friend…) Now, I’m having trouble fitting it back in earlier in the query. Is it too far down?

At the end I talk mention the blurb (author) promised-- is that worth including? It’s not a lie, but I’m worried it’s not relevant or I’m jumping the gun.

Dear Query Shark,

When something from  space (missing word) and lands in the parking lot outside the pizza shop, Meg knows she’s in trouble.

You're missing a verb here. As I read your query that kind of typo stands out like a pink flamingo on Astroturf.  It leads me to form some opinions about your work and they're not good.

 I cannot over stress the ironclad necessity of making sure these kind of glitches get revised out. We ALL leave out verbs, make typos, have too many thats, and discover errant the thes in our writing. The trick is to REVISE those errors out.

Other than that, this is pretty funny.

But when a boy who smells like spearmint invites her to see his band and her boy-crazy, best friend, June, overhears? Meg knows she’s screwed.

And this is splat. The second paragraph should build on the first. You have an alien space craft (or something!) landing in the parking lot. Your BFF hearing a boy invite you to a concert is pretty anti climatic.

The solution? Leave it out. Move directly to the next paragraph.

There’s rumblings in town that something like this (the object from space, not the boy) without the second paragraph you don't need the parenthetical has happened before. Also, their new friend, Sev, a zoologist from the team sent to investigate, seems to know much more than he’s letting on.

Together, the three of them must unravel the mystery behind the object that fell—and they’re not the only ones searching.

Why do they have to unravel the mystery? What's at stake if they don't? Unicorns will go extinct?

And, it all has to happen before Meg’s “date” (June’s words) at Battle of the Bands this weekend.

Why? What's so important about this concert?

 THE DODO AND THE SPACESHIP OUTSIDE is a lighthearted YA, slice-of-life novel interrupted by the arrival of a sci-fi adventure in the parking lot outside.

One of the things agents say at writers conferences panels about queries goes like this: "I was reading this terrific manuscript, pretty sure it was a rom-com, then all of a sudden, aliens arrive in Chapter 14. That's why I ask writers to submit a synopsis."

And here you are with aliens interrupting a rom com, but you've kindly put it in chapter one.

You're trying to be witty here. Oh hell you ARE witty. But the purpose of a query isn't to show your wit, it's to entice me to read your novel. You're undercutting that here by using the word "interrupted." 

It’s all experienced though the ears, hands, and nose of Meg, who is blind.

It is completed at 60,000 words. Comparables are “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” meets “Steelheart.”

I’m currently a creative copywriter at (Big Ass and Famous), a large advertising agency. This novel was workshopped over a semester under (Good writer) and he has promised a blurb once it’s published. As an LGBTQ+ minority, I’m also passionate about including those narratives in my work.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Your questions:
The first person viewpoint character of my novel is blind but the story is not about her blindness. It’s just something she happens to be. I know it’s a selling point, but it’s not a plot point.

Originally, I had it as a logline (A blind girl and her best friend…) Now, I’m having trouble fitting it back in earlier in the query. Is it too far down?

No. You handle it very deftly. Since the book is NOT about her blindness, you don't lead with that.

At the end I talk mention the blurb Brandon Sanderson promised-- is that worth including? It’s not a lie, but I’m worried it’s not relevant or I’m jumping the gun.

It's worth a mention because he's OFFERED the blurb. Where you'd run into trouble is if he'd already blurbed it. You can't ask an author twice and often books are revised and reshaped in the acquisition and editorial process such that the book read before sending out to agents is much different than the book now on its way to bookstores.  There's a longer blog post about that here.

There's essentially no plot on the page here, and even in a rom-com, you must have a plot, or what's at stake for the characters.  You've got the wit; now we need some substance.

Queries can have frothy whipped cream but it's got to be on top of the hot chocolate, not in place of it.

Revise, resend.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

#317-rev 1x

First revision

Dear QueryShark:

Things 16-year-old Joshua Taylor didn’t see coming:
A mom who doesn’t know him.
A clone in the kitchen that looks exactly like him.
A dead father who’s very much alive.

I like this because it's instantly interesting: I'm eager to find out the WHY of all these things.

He’s knocked unconscious by bullies and wakes up in a world where supernatural creatures live among humans, technology has advanced by a couple decades, and even his family is different. Could it be a time paradox, parallel universe, or maybe like The Matrix or Total Recall?

But now I'm confused. Did this happen before or after the events of Paragraph One?
Simply adding "when" will help:
When Josh is knocked ... he wakes up in a world.

This gives your reader context and avoids confusion.

Then an angel, named Zed, claims tells Josh he is a champion with the power to manipulate matter and energy. And he thinks that’s ridiculous — until he sends kids flying with a wave of his hand and strikes a tree with lightning. An ancient prophecy declares he’s destined to liberate a powerful sword and he frees it. But it’s engraved with a warning: “In the wrong hands this is a weapon of mass destruction. Protect it at all costs.”

If you use tells instead of claims, it keeps the focus on what Josh is doing: learning about this new world he's in. Each word counts. Revising is often a matter of changing one word at a time.

And you've left out the consequences of his uncontrolled superpowers. He sends kids flying...where?Into a brick wall? Off a building? Into the girls bathroom?

And simplify as much as possible. You don't need all the information in a query. Just enough to get us where we're going.  It's the difference between a bridge and stepping stones. You only need stepping stones in a query.

Consider:  An ancient prophecy declares he’s destined to liberates a powerful sword t. But it’s engraved with a warning: “In the wrong hands this is a weapon of mass destruction. Protect it at all costs.”

Just paring down to what he does really helps here.

Now Zed’s forces are fighting over Josh, trying to recruit him, and pushing him into dangerous situations to test his powers. And they want the weapon and threaten to kill anyone who gets in the way. Josh must learn to use his superpowers quickly, because if he fails, everyone and everything he loves could be lost.

I don't understand what or who Zed's forces are. And fighting over Josh? Among themselves? Can they make him do things against his will? If he has control, why is he doing what they tell him?

But what if he succeeds? Stakes are about what cost Josh must pay to win. He learns to use his superpowers quickly and what will he have to give up or lose?

OTHERWORLDLY is a 93,000-word YA fantasy adventure. It’s the Hero’s Journey with a twist — boy wakes up and the world has changed but he doesn’t know why or how and has to figure it out along the way. Prior to this first novel, I worked as a PR fixer — like Olivia Pope minus the blackmail, torture and murder — and I have a bachelor’s in journalism/communications. Thank you for your time and consideration.

I know it will surprise you to learn that we'll recognize a Hero's Journey novel when we see one. In other words, you don't have to point out the obvious even to dunderheads agents.  (Some of us even wrote a senior thesis on why Rambo is the new Beowulf.)

Question: I’m struggling with current comps. Cassandra Clare’s books have diverse creatures but not the alternate reality aspect. And my book’s tone/style is somewhat similar to Percy Jackson. Because I couldn’t find a current comp, I came up with Dark Matter (the novel) meets Lady Midnight with a dash of Percy Jackson, because it ties in the elements, but I know the Shark hates these. Am I making this more difficult than necessary? Do comps need all prominent elements together in one book?

Essentially comps are for people (and I mean agents and editors so perhaps I should have said scallywags) to assess who the audience is for your book. People who liked Harry Potter will like this book because it's adventures in an alternate world with magic kind of thing.

Every element of the comp book doesn't need to match. Tone and style are more helpful than anything.  I love to read Jack Reacher. Therefore, comps are books set contemporary times, with heroic main characters doing good cause it's the Way He Is, solving problems for people.  He's not trying to overthrow the government and he's not fighting some abstract madman trying to take over the world.  For that you need James Bond. 

I don't think you need comps for this book cause I think it's pretty clear what it is, but some agents and editors insist.

Comp for style and tone first.

I'm not sure if you realize that what distinguishes this book, or any book, is not that it is a hero's journey with a twist because all books are that when you get down to basics.

What will make this book stand out is the elements you bring to it that are fresh and new.
Pulling a sword from a stone with a warning is neither of those.

Trying to master superpowers isn't either.

What makes your story different?

So far, I haven't seen that.

And in a crowded field like YA fantasy adventure it is essential that you have something fresh and new.

The one thing that keeps me reading, even if the plot is something I've seen before, is zesty and vibrant language. Tell the old story with verve, and you'll hold our attention.

 Initial query
Dear Query Shark:

Question: My plan was to give potential agents the ability to read up to 1/3 of the book instantly. Eight years ago, you said not to include active links, but it’s very common now. Is this acceptable? Active is much easier because email software will turn parts of a URL into what looks like active links, but they don’t work, which could be confusing. This is what a non-active link could look like:

To read up to 88 pages of the book on Zoho TeamDrive, go to (add https:// at beginning and paste into browser) and enter the password (redacted)

Is this a good idea or a bad one? I’ve made this a real link/password for the Shark in case she wants to see how it works.

Thank you for making query writing educational and entertaining. You can chomp my arm off now (left please since I write with my right).

You're solving a problem that doesn't exist.

If I want to read your manuscript all I have to do is hit Reply to your email, and ask you to come to my house and read it. And about 50% of all y'all would be there within an hour.

Alternatively, I can just email you to send the manuscript as a word doc. In other words, the system works fine, don't screw around with it unless asked to do so.

The only reason I can think of that made you want to do this is being afraid you'll miss the email requesting the full. Unless you are headed for a long prison term, on a voyage to Mars, or stalking the wild asparagus in Borneo, you'll be available enough to send something.  I don't need the manuscript the instant I read your query. I generally read queries in batches, and requested fulls when I've set aside a block of time.

So, there's no real reason you need this PLUS it's a TERRIBLE idea and you should never do it because it marks you as a crackpot who thinks "follow the damn directions" doesn't apply to you. I'm sure that's not the real you, so don't do stuff that makes people think so.

Also, I like to have the manuscript here on my hard drive so I can adjust the font, clear out all the crazy margins you set, insert double spacing, AND be able to send it back to you with some notes marked in track changes. In other words, what I ask for is what I want, and what I want is not arbitrary or whimsical.

Dear Mr./Ms. Agent Name:

Things 15-year-old Josh Taylor didn’t see coming:

A mom who doesn’t know him.
A clone in the kitchen that looks exactly like him.
A dead father who’s very much alive.

It’s like he wandered into the Twilight Zone . . . or a seriously messed up after-school special. He’s knocked unconscious and wakes up in a world where supernatural creatures live among humans, technology has advanced by a couple decades, and even his family is different.

This is actually pretty good, and enticing.

An angel, named Zed, claims he’s a champion with the power to manipulate matter and energy. And he thinks that’s ridiculous — until he sends kids flying with a wave of his hand and strikes a tree with lightning. An ancient prophecy declares he’s destined to liberate a powerful sword, and he easily frees it. But it’s engraved with a freaky warning: “In the wrong hands this is a weapon of mass destruction. Protect it at all costs.”

Now he’s got a list of things he never thought he’d do:

Make it rain in the school gym.
Heal his friend’s cat-dog hybrid.
Steal a priceless artifact from a museum.
Battle a 5322-year-old changeling at the zoo.

And those were the easy parts. Something invisible is stalking Josh. Angels fight over him, try to recruit him, and force him into dangerous situations to test his powers. Even his home isn’t safe — with a spiteful AI in charge. And vampires and aliens want to steal the weapon, and they threaten to kill him and his family and friends to get it. Josh must learn to use his superpowers quickly, because if he fails, everyone and everything he loves could be lost.

TITLE — a 93,000-word YA alternate-universe adventure — is my first novel. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Angels, vampires and aliens. And Artificial Intelligence. You've got a LOT of weird here. Often the best plots are pretty simple. You don't need fusion cooking for a tasty treat (Brussels sprouts, raisins, walnuts with ice cream!); you need really simple but delicious ingredients. Corn on the cob. Butter. A napkin.

Over stuffing the plot is something I see in writers early in their career. It takes confidence to pare down, and confidence takes a while to build.

It's not your lunatic page link that will earn you a pass here; it's the overly elaborate plot.

Revise. Resend. And ditch the link idea forever.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

#316-Revised once

Dear QueryShark:

Rosie didn’t mean to summon a muse, but now Muses Incorporated’s best and brightest is at her service. Every time Rosie runs into Theo, her new neighbor, inspiration follows in his wake. Words that have been dead and gone for years flow free and easy. Things are looking up. 

I'm confused here. If inspiration follows in his wake, who's being inspired? Rosie? Theo? People standing around chatting at the neighborhood t-rex roast?

Words that have been dead and gone flow free and easy? Dead words are flowing? That sounds like a horror novel to me.

Don't try to be clever. Just tell me what Rosie wants and why she can't have it. My guess is that Rosie wants to be a writer and she's having a hard time wrangling words. 

Until she and Theo stumble through a portal and end up trapped in the world where Rosie’s stories live.

They stumble through a portal? Generally when I'm slinking about with my Muse  here in NYC I avoid the manhole covers portals.   

Stumbling through a portal is one of those devices you use cause you haven't figured out how to get them to a different world in a more interesting way.  Quick fixes like this are ok if they aren't major plot points, but honestly, this is the big one, and it's a clichĂ©.

Okay. She can handle this. 

Theo says the only way home is to write them to the other side, but that’s kind of hard to pull off when there’s nothing but sand and sun where characters and plot should be. 

You know characters and plot are made up things, right? Cause at this point you've taken this whole "my book is a living thing" metaphor right up to the edge of aw c'mon.

As if that wasn’t enough, Theo’s power-hungry, manipulative boss is doing everything she can to keep Theo from signing his last contract and becoming a free human again. Calliope’s determined to keep them trapped until Theo gives up his hope at freedom and promises to stay by her side forever. And if that means killing Rosie, then so be it.

Theo sounds like the guy with the problem, not Rosie.

Maybe she can’t handle this after all. 

ROSIE AND THEO is contemporary fantasy, and is 75,000 words.

75K feels a bit light for a fantasy. There's all that world building you need, plus of course a plot.

This is my debut novel. When I’m not writing, I’m raising five kids to be pretty cool humans, along with my pretty cool, human husband. Sometimes, I’ll go on long and very excited rants about Jewish pirates. It’s a thing.

This is still the best part of the query, and it gives me hope.
Thank you for your time and consideration.

The really bad news is that books about writers and writing are generally best left to non-fiction. Only writers find the travails of writers to be interesting. It's a little too inside baseball.

I see these kinds of books from writers often enough that I know it's a response to being frustrated about your own writing career.  Unfortunately that's not enough to drive a novel.

If you can turn this on its ear, make the writer the villain (gasp!) and the Muse the protagonist; the writer botching things left and right; the Muse having to solve things for the writer, this is going to be a whole lot more interesting.

If you don't want to make that kind of major change, you still need to be much more specific about Rosie's problem: what she wants and why she can't have it.


Original query

Question Re: contact info. Should a tumblr be included? I have over 2k followers, but it's mostly fandom content. And what about fanfiction? I've been writing for 17 years and I have stories that have close to 50k hits online, and several hundred likes and comments. But I also know that a lot of people see fanfiction as taboo. Should I reference it, or am I better off not mentioning it at all?

One last question - when submission guidelines ask for pages, should they always be double spaced, even if the submission guidelines don't say either way?

Dear Query Shark,

Rosie’s pretty sure it would take magic to help her publish a novel at this point. Her best friend, Adelaide, always said she had it in her. But to be honest, Rosie hasn’t written a word since Addy died two years ago. Right now, she has less chance of publishing a book than she has of landing a decent date on Tinder. And that’s saying something.

Novels about writers are really tricky. Only writers care about whether someone publishes a novel. And writers aren't your audience here: readers are.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a doctor once at a writing conference. I asked what the stakes were in his novel. He said in a horrified voice "he will lose his hospital privileges!" The writer/doctor was shocked to his shoes when I said no one would care about that.

My point here is the book needs to be about more then whether Rosie gets published.

Theo has worked as a muse at Muses Inc. for two hundred years. Now, at last, his contract is almost up. He just needs to sign one more writer and he can get back to his life, to his own writing, to his freedom. But his boss, Calliope, doesn’t share his enthusiasm, and seems determined to make him stay, whatever the cost.

 This is actually a much more interesting start to the query. But what is Calliope's problem here? She doesn't like writers all of a sudden? Last I looked, she's the muse of Poets et al.

When Rosie inadvertently summons Theo, the two of them end up thrown into The Sandbox, a world where Rosie’s writing comes to life. The only way back home is to follow the story through to the end. Cue hybrid monsters, fire mages, fairy queens and one seriously manipulative Greek goddess.

So, what's the plot here? Rosie wants to get published. Got that. Theo wants out of Muses Inc. Got that. Who's running the Sandbox (ie the antagonist)? And by Greek goddess do you mean Calliope, cause she's a muse, not a goddess.

Rosie’s pretty sure it’ll all make a good book if she and Theo can just survive it.
ROSIE AND THEO is 74,000 words. It is a contemporary fantasy novel about reclaiming agency, overcoming fear, and becoming the protagonist of your own narrative.

Well, ok, but I don't get how this is any of that. What fears does Rosie overcome? Reclaiming agency? I'm pretty sure you don't mean literary agency, cause that would be weird. Become the protagonist of your own narrative sounds like a self-help book, not a novel.

This is my debut novel. When I’m not writing, I’m raising five kids to be pretty cool humans, along with my pretty cool, human husband. Sometimes, I’ll go on long and very excited rants about Jewish pirates. It’s a thing.

This is the best part of the query. It's funny. It makes sense. And it makes me want to know more about you.And where's the book about Jewish pirates? Oy matey!

Thank you for your time and consideration.

You don't have any plot on the page here, and I'm not seeing what you tell me the book is about. Start over.

As for your questions:
Question Re: contact info. Should a tumblr be included? I have over 2k followers, but it's mostly fandom content. And what about fanfiction? I've been writing for 17 years and I have stories that have close to 50k hits online, and several hundred likes and comments. But I also know that a lot of people see fanfiction as taboo. Should I reference it, or am I better off not mentioning it at all?

Include your Tumblr account if you want an agent to look at it. Any social media platform is ok, particularly if it shows you've got an engaged audience.  Readers are readers and I'm always glad to hear that a debut novelist already has some. 

Fanfiction is taboo? I guess we should all forget that complete flop of a novel Fifty Shades of Grey?
I can't sell fanfiction using a world someone else created but I can certainly let READERS of that fiction know you have another book being published. There's a very clear distinction here. Let me know if you need elaboration.

One last question - when submission guidelines ask for pages, should they always be double spaced, even if the submission guidelines don't say either way?

Not in an electronic query. Pages are single spaced BUT you allow white space by inserting a line every 3-5 lines so you're not sending a Big Block O'Text.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

#315-revised 2x

* one of the people commenting on my pitch on your site mentioned that he thought it was speculative fiction. I’m not sure if a couple of ghosts qualify a novel as speculative fiction. Could it be Magic Realism?

I can never remember the distinctions on these, so I'm always looking it up. Here are some places to start. And category can be more fluid than genre for sure.

Magical realism:

Is speculative fiction also magical realism?


Revision #2

Dear Query Shark,

In 1977, seventeen-year-old psychic Alice discovers a young man in antique clothes — and he’s been murdered.

She asks Rona the housekeeper if she knows if there had ever been anyone murdered on the old Georgian estate? Rona reacts annoyed, and when Alice tells her about a ghostly swan with human eyes that tried to warn her about the forest, she becomes agitated and changes the subject.

“reacts annoyed” is incorrect usage. You mention in an earlier query that English is your second language. I think you’ll need a native English speaker for a the final once-over on this. A native speaker would catch this (I hope!)

I’m also confused by this entire paragraph. What ghostly swan? What warning?

Alice finds a dead guy in antique clothes. The first thing she does is ask the housekeeper if knows of any dead people? I’d think she’d check his pockets for ID. Or call the police. Or someone who could help her.

Is Rona the only other person on the estate? If so, and that’s why Alice inquires about this of her (Rona), then you don’t need to tell us much more than she (Rona) becomes agitated and changes the subject.

Determined to find answers, Alice searches her room and discovers a secret compartment containing old letters dated 1803. The letters, written by the eighteen-year-old Melissa, intrigue Alice and slowly a tragic life lived 174 years before starts to unfold.

So, you’ve got a dead body and your first course of action is to search your own room?

That doesn’t make sense to me.

You’d be better off to place less emphasis on the discovery of the dead body, and instead starting with the search: 

After Alice finds a murdered young man in antique clothes in the garden, something no one on the estate seems to want to talk about, she decides to search for clues about his identity.

The cache of letters from 1803 that she finds in a secret compartment in her own room seem to hold the answer.

Then Alice meets and falls in love with Rona’s nephew Connor and she experiences true happiness for the first time, but when she finds her dog poisoned in the forest, she begins to wonder if meeting Connor wasn’t orchestrated by Rona to stop her investigating the historical murder.

So that’ a long ass sentence of 48 words.

Anytime you have something this long, revise into shorter, blunter sentences.

You’re also awash in what happens rather than giving us the plot. (Lack of plot is a consistent problem in ALL these iterations of your query)

Consider this revision: Alice’s investigation slows down when she meets and falls in love with Rona’s nephew Connor.

There’s no connection here between the dog being poisoned and Connor. Why would Alice suspect him? And if she thought Connor killed her dog, why hasn’t she kicked him to the curb?

In trying to lay Melissa’s brother’s ghost to rest, Alice must face a devastating truth about the swan — with Connor’s eyes.

Again, what swan?

I grew up in Ireland and have always loved the stories told me by my teachers at the various convent schools I went to. THE GHOST SWAN is set in Ireland, and inspired by Irish legends and history. The novel is told in a dual time narrative and complete at 96,000 words, targeting a YA Crossover readership.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

There’s nothing at stake here for Alice. Facing a devastating truth is NOT stakes. What’s at stake is what Alice is going to lose, have to give up, etc. What choices she has to make.

Stakes are why we care about what happens. Without them, the book is just a series of events, and that’s not what you want.

There are templates on this blog for how to get plot on the page. Use them as the starting point.

Since it's  not in the query, first make sure it IS in the book.

Yes, it is entirely possible to write a book without a plot.

I’ve read some. Great writing, great voice, but no plot. Those break my heart.

Make sure you’ve got a plot in the book THEN revise the query to reflect that.

Revision #1

I’ve put in two comparable titles, Atonement which inspired me to want to write a heart-wrenching love story and I wanted the mystery of The Miniaturist, but how do you compare yourself to such great writers?

Dear Query Shark,

It’s 1977, Leda recently moved with her father to a mysterious Georgian estate in rural Ireland.

This isn't a compelling first sentence.  If you show us why the Georgian estate is mysterious, or why Leda and Dad are moving there, you'll have a better chance of engaging your reader. But really the best way to start is with what Leda wants, and what's getting in her way.

In the throbbing heart of the forest not far from the house, where shadows duck away from sunbeams like wild cats, she stumbles on the murder of a young man dressed in strange old-fashioned clothes. She realizes she must have witnessed something from the past.

Forests don't have throbbing hearts of any kind, and this kind of metaphor makes me roll my eyes. That shadows duck away from sunbeams is telling me something I already know, and not in a way that makes me see shadows or sunbeams in a new light. If you start with "In a forest not far from the house Leda finds a young man dressed in antique clothes. And he's dead" you've got my interest.

In other words, don't try to be fancy. Not here, not in the novel. Too much fancy is like an overdecorated cake. Save the marzipan filigree for the top of the cake, not covering the entire thing.

Terrified and lonely, she finds old letters hidden in her bedroom written by a teenage girl dated 1803. The letters strangely comfort her, and visions of past events start to trickle into her daily life.

This is too abstract to be compelling. We have no idea why she's terrified, why she's lonely, why she's finding letters hidden in her bedroom.

And if she's having visions, what is she seeing? Is that what's scaring her? If so, you have this in the wrong order: visions, then tell us she's scared.

But the big problem here is we still haven't gotten to the plot.  I really need to know what the problem is, and what's at stake for Leda.

Then, she meets the first kind person in the village, slaughterhouse worker Connor, and it doesn’t take long for her to fall in love with him. As she uncovers the secrets of the letters, she discovers that the murders that started 174 years ago have never really stopped and Connor may be hiding the darkest secret of all — she might lose more than just her heart.

Still no plot. What does Leda want? What's keeping her from getting it.

Written for a readership that also enjoyed Atonement and The Miniaturist, The Ghost Swan is a general fiction novel of 96,000 words, set in 1977 and 1803, and told from two perspectives, the young, murdered man in 1803 and Leda.

There isn't really a "general fiction" category when you're talking about your novel. You'll see that in libraries maybe, but here in a query you can just say fiction (but NEVER EVER "fiction novel")

Atonement isn't a book you'll want to use a comp. First, it's now too old to be useful (it was pubbed in 2003). But, more important, Atonement sold very very well. You'd think that would be a plus as a comp, but it's not. More than anyone, agents know what a crapshoot it is to get a novel to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. (Hell, tens of thousands of copies is hard enough.) And of course, it was nominated for the Booker Prize.

Comparing your book to an outlier like this is akin to saying "The woman who won Miss America played the trombone for her talent. I play the trombone, so I could be the next Miss America." And no matter how well you play the trombone, that is not something people will take seriously. Even if you are young and lovely.

You can use Atonement if want to compare tone or style, but even that isn't a great idea.

The Miniaturist is a better choice, since it was pubbed in 2015, but it also has more than a thousand reviews on Amazon, thus might be a big reach.

Comps are very difficult to get right.  You're safer to say "the tone of my book is reminiscent of X or Y" or "the two time lines of my novel are similar to Z and A."

Readers who liked B and C should have B and C no more than two years old, and not runaway best sellers. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The answer to your question, how do you compare yourself to such great writers, is "you don't."

While I would LOVE it if your book moved me like Atonement, it's better for me to discover that it does, rather than be disappointed if it doesn't.

I remember when I read the very first draft of Lee Goodman's INDEFENSIBLE. I put my monocle down at about page 30, took a breath, and thought "holy moly, this guy writes like Scott Turow."  Lee hadn't mentioned Scott Turow, or even Presumed Innocent  in his query at all. He let me figure it out on my own. And because I saw it on my own, I was sure I was right. (I am right!)

You've still got the same problems you did in the first version: no plot.
This leads me to think that the problem might not be the query, it's the novel itself.

Make sure you have a plot in your novel. Yes, it is entirely possible to write a novel without a plot.
It's not a character flaw, or a sign that you're a bad writer, or you should throw up your hands in despair and become a taxi dancer at a waterfront dive bar.  It means you should figure out a plot and get it in the book.

Original query


1. I was raised in Ireland but born in the Netherlands; technically English is my second language, should I mention this in the query or would I be better off keeping my background a secret?

2. I’ve lost count as to how many agents I’ve queried; my novel was requested twice. I’ve had it assessed by official assessment agencies twice as well, both were very positive but had different views to what I should adjust. Could it than be the query that is posing the problem?

3. Is this query too short?

4. Should I mention the courses I did?

Dear Query Shark,

Florian relives one day over and over again, 11th February 1803, the last day of his life.
Leda discovers 174 years later who murdered him.

Your sentence structure is robbing that second line of any zing.
Consider: 174 years later, Leda discovers who murdered him.
See the difference?

But the problem of course is that reliving one day over and over again has been done so often that it's not only NOT fresh and new, it's tired and cranky.

This opening does not catch my interest. That's not fatal in a query, but it's not good either.

Although Florian and Leda live in their own time, each simultaneously embarks on a quest for truth, not knowing what the other discovers will affect them both in ways they never dreamed.

I don't understand what that means. Specifics really help in a query. And as far as I can tell there's no plot and nothing at stake. I really need to know about those in the query.

The Ghost Swan is a literary novel of 96,000 words set in Ireland in 1977 and 1803, and told from two perspectives.

And here's what's really amiss about this query. You're calling it a literary novel, but this query is the antithesis of literary. There are no lyrical turns of phrase, no deftly wrought metaphors, no words tangoing the reader across the dance floor of the novel, beguiling them to read on.

In other words: your query shows me what kind of writing to expect in the novel, and after reading this I do not expect literary fiction.

Plain is good. Plain is very good. But plain as in the beauty of an Amish quilt or the negative space of a spider web on a dewy morning.

I am an artist, and divide my time between writing and painting large watercolors. I’ve completed the writing a Novel, course at (School) in London, and (named) course in Scotland, and the (another name) Short Story Course. I published a short memoir in (another) Magazine in Dublin, and also made the artwork for the cover of (another) Literary Magazine, which was published last January.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


To answer your questions:
1. I was raised in Ireland but born in the Netherlands; technically English is my second language, should I mention this in the query or would I be better off keeping my background a secret?

There's a difference between keeping it a secret and not announcing it in a query. If you were raised in Ireland my guess is your English is pretty darn good. I didn't see anything in the query that made me wonder if it was your second language.

2. I’ve lost count as to how many agents I’ve queried; my novel was requested twice. I’ve had it assessed by official assessment agencies twice as well, both were very positive but had different views to what I should adjust. Could it than be the query that is posing the problem?

This query doesn't work at all. It starts with something that doesn't sound engaging, and there's no hint of plot, or what's at stake for either main character.

3. Is this query too short?
It doesn't have any mention of plot or stakes, so yes. That said, don't just add that. Think about how to entice your reader.

4. Should I mention the courses I did?
 No. The only thing that matters is the book.

Start over. Get some plot on the page here in the query.
SHOW me that you're writing literary fiction. 
If you're not, it's ok, but call it something else (like commercial fiction.)