Saturday, March 31, 2018

#303-revised once

Revision #1
 Dear QueryShark:

Thirty-nine-year-old Chicago bartender, Jesse Chasen, the self-sabotaging black sheep of her family, receives a call at work from a lawyer who informs her of the death of her birth mother. The catch is, she didn’t know she had a “birth mother”.
Everyone has a birth mother. What Jesse doesn't realize is she has two mothers.

She shows up on the doorstep of her estranged, emotionally repressed older sister, Jennifer McMahon, a doctor’s wife who lives a (seemingly) charmed, Brady-Bunch-on-steroids existence; because in order collect the inheritance, the terms of the Will force them on a journey through the Deep South to piece together their mother’s story, told in flashbacks.

What's missing here is what's at stake. What happens if they don't collect the inheritance? Life continues as it was? What prompts Jesse to undertake this journey?

Their road trip through the other Land Down Under leads them to the discovery of an ex-military Drag Queen brother, Jack Babineaux, who performs in New Orleans as "Jackie Oh!" After initially refusing to join them, he’s coerced. The Will states that their trip must be completed within one week and all children must be present or the money is donated to charity.  For some yet-unknown reason, Angie Hartley needed her children to understand why she made the choices in life that she did.
So, Jack is their brother? This mom gave up three children? Or had three children taken from her? This sure doesn't seem like the starting point of a comedy. Oh it's not a comedy? The tone of the query, and your comps sure make me think it is.

And, if they don't get the money it goes to a good cause? The stakes are getting lower by the minute here.  Do any of these characters need the money? Will it change their lives for the better? Save them from the leg breakers sent by their bookie? Let them pay off a house heading toward foreclosure. Without a sense of the money's value to them, there are no stakes.

Yeah, it’s a Dead-Mom Scavenger Hunt.

At each new stop, they’re given another piece of the Angie puzzle… a circus, a murder, an eighty-nine-year-old narcoleptic juke joint owner in Alabama, and Dead-Circus-Mom’s marriage to a wealthy, gay Savannah man twice her age. The underlying parallels with Jesse’s life unfold, and the initial anger inches toward understanding, though the one-week time constraint is under constant threat of implosion.

This isn't character soup, it's event soup.

I have no idea what "one-week time constraint is under constant threat of implosion" means.

If the tension between the sisters, Jesse’s newly discovered and unwanted pregnancy, Jennifer’s disintegrating marriage from 1000 miles away, and Jack’s PTSD medication-induced night wanderings don’t derail them… when their car breaks down in the 11th hour, the surprise detour taken just might.

The relationships between the siblings are constantly shifting as they discover the complexities of Angie’s story, and the strained relationships with each other give way to mutual support and a deeper understanding about their own lives (in spite of themselves). Then their trip is turned on its head at their final stop when they find their mother still alive.
Unless an agent specifically tells you to do that, never reveal the ending.
The purpose of a query is to entice your reader (me) to read the pages, and then the book. If I know what happens at the end, why would I want to? In other words: NO SPOILERS!

A coming-of-age story sometimes doesn’t happen until later in life. Then it’s about Second Chances, and about finding the people you choose to call family.
Why did you capitalize second chances? Odd capitalization is one of those things that drives me crazy.  It can be used to great effect for emphasis in very short form things like tweets or email (to wit: I don't want to be That Person) but here, it just looks sloppy.

Yeah. And alligators…

THE KEY TO THE HIGHWAY is character-driven commercial fiction. I think this book will appeal to someone who'd enjoy watching a Jonathan Tropper family move into a Carl Hiaasen neighborhood. The manuscript is complete at 53,000 words.

Thank you for your consideration.
Oh no no no, you do not get to skip having a plot by calling it character driven. Character driven books must still show me what the characters WANT and what's at stake for them.

You have no plot here. That's a problem with the book, not the query.

Dear QueryShark:
Thirty-nine-year-old Chicago strip club bartender and part-time tattoo artist, Jesse Chasen, is the whip-smart black sheep of her family. She’s cute, but an aging-tough-girl, you-wouldn’t-hire-her-to-babysit-your-kids kind of way. Like if Joan Jett and Reese Witherspoon had a lovechild.

This is a classic mistake in a query. You think telling me what she looks like is telling me about her. It's not.Nothing here tells me what she values, what she wants, what she cares about.

And strip clubs of any kind in the first sentence of a query is a big turn off. I don't want to read books about strip clubs, or people who work in them.  That might just be me, of course, but the days of Mickey Spillane are pretty much over.

After quitting her job then stealing the dog of her (newly-ex) boyfriend/boss, Jesse shows up on the doorstep of her estranged, emotionally repressed older sister, Jennifer McMahon, a doctor’s wife who lives a Brady-Bunch-on-steroids existence in the perfectly manicured suburb of Glenview.

Why? The reason is the first sentence of the NEXT paragraph (the call from the lawyer.)  That information needs to go BEFORE we hear she quits her job and steals a dog (which seems weird when it's out of context.)

They received a call from a lawyer that morning about the death of their birth mother. The catch is, they didn’t know they had a “birth mother”. To collect the inheritance, they’re forced on a journey together through the Deep South to piece together their mom's story, told in flashbacks. The unusual terms of the will state that their trip must be completed in one week and all children must be present or the money is donated to charity.

Unusual terms? This kind of set up has been fodder for novels since Agatha Christie invented Hercule Poirot.  And journey/quest/discover stories are as old as Chaucer.  It might be unusual for your characters, but for your readers, this isn't anything new. 

Which is not to say it's a poor choice, it's not. It's just not what you want to focus on in your query. Yes it's a quest novel. Show me what you did here that's new, fresh, a twist on the tales we've heard earlier. Show me how your novel contributes to and BUILDS ON the quest novel category. Otherwise it's same  old same old, and I'm not so interested in that.

Also you squandered a lot of your reader's enthusiasm with that description of Jesse, when it turns out the strip club and tattoo thing don't have much to do with the plot at all.

Focus on what's important: Sisters Jesse and Jennifer get a call from a lawyer about the death of their birth mother. The catch is, they didn't know they had one.

Yeah, it’s a Dead-Mom Scavenger Hunt.

Their journey through the other Land Down Under leads them to an ex-military Drag Queen brother with mild PTSD who performs in New Orleans as Jackie Oh! After he refuses to join them, they kidnap him at gunpoint (of course). Sure, it’s just a crappy, plastic reproduction of a Civil War revolver they found in a Bourbon St. tourist shop, but he doesn’t discover that until they’re halfway to Bayou Lafourche in Thibodaux, LA.

There's no plot here. There's nothing at stake. You're describing people and events. That's not the same as plot.

The rest of their story includes a circus; a murder; human-eating alligators; an eighty-nine-year-old narcoleptic juke joint owner in Alabama; a trucker with a penchant for TV theme songs from the 70’s, and his bloodhound Ronald Reagan; and Dead-Circus-Mom’s marriage to a wealthy, gay Savannah man twice her age. Then it’s all turned on its head at their final stop.

A coming-of-age story sometimes doesn’t happen until later in life. Then it’s about Second Chances, and about finding the people you choose to call family.

Yeah. And alligators…
Which is a funny line, and I'm totally in favor of having alligators in every book (Snappsy Forever!) but it's not as funny as it could be if you didn't mention alligators in line one of the paragraph starting "the rest of their story."

I think this book will appeal to someone who'd enjoy watching a Sue Monk Kidd family move into a Carl Hiason neighborhood. My manuscript is complete at 53,000 words.

Carl Hiaasen.
You've committed one of my all time biggest snarly prickle puss offenses by misspelling the name of the author you're using as a comp. It's REALLy easy to do, especially with a name like Hiaasen.  But you solve this problem by spell czeching every name. Every time. I feel your pain, I have a client with a name I need to verify Every Single Time, and yes, I've caught mistakes. She's got a double ff instead of a ph, and I always forget how many e's (three, in case you're wondering!)

If I see this in a query, it's not a deal breaker. It is however one less reason to say yes if I'm wavering, and that's NOT what you want.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

The big problem here is there is no plot.
Colorful characters doing crazy things does not a plot make. This is not a plot driven novel (it's character driven) but you MUST have a plot here or there's no tension, and no narrative arc.

Plot is essential because it's the reason we care about what happens to the characters. Without a challenge (or having something at stake) there's no conflict. Without conflict, it's hard to care what happens. No plot is like a football game that doesn't keep score.  (I had to revise that from "no score" because yes, dear readers, I did attend a  football game where the score was 0-0 at the end of the 4th quarter. Of course it was raining.)

Go back and read Carl Hiaasen to see what his plots are. I'm a big fan of his novel Strip Tease.

Sunday, March 25, 2018


Questions: I’ve read through the other blogs and did my best, but I feel like I’m having trouble picking and choosing what parts to keep and what to cut. I’ve seen your amazing and sometimes painful advice, and I say go ahead, “bite me”. Which pieces aren’t absolutely necessary? I’m also worried that it’s too dark for middle grade. It just feels like there’s something obvious that is going right over my head.

Dear Query Shark,

Humans are evil and that’s a fact.

Yikes! You do know that everyone (well, except for me!) who reads this is human, right? Also, 'humans' is abstract rather than specific. Thus it slaps us across the face but doesn't really tell us anything. In other words, not an effective opening line.

Or at least, that’s what Star, or Stardancer if you want to get technical, believes. Anyone who had heard the horror stories would think the same. Granted, Star is a hybrid, making her part human. But the wolf DNA in her genome separates her from them. She has no problem leveling her arrow at a human.

There are a lot of goods reasons you should start with the main character. That it is specific right away is just one of them.

Consider: Star has no problem leveling her arrow at a human. Granted, she's a hybrid -part human- but she's heard the horror stories. Aren't all humans evil?

The hybrids of the Tribe have called the planet Nema home for almost a century. Star herself is thriving, happily following in her father’s pawprints. The humans that created the hybrids haven’t been seen in a hundred years, withdrawing far away to their polluted Planet Earth. And that’s where Star likes them.

If they haven't been seen in hundreds of years, how does she know she'd have no trouble pointing her arrow at one?

But all good things must come to an end.

Star’s world is rocked with the arrival of a human colony that threatens the peace. arrives.

You don't need both "all good things come to an end" and "Star's world is rocked etc."  While those sentences don't mean the same thing, they convey the same moment in the story, that is things are now going to change.

Also, withdrawing is the wrong word here. Withdrawing conveys that the process is still ongoing (ie happening now), but we know humans haven't been seen in  a hundred years. Thus they have withdrawn to their polluted planet.  This is the kind of writing that gives me pause because it means you're not fully in command of your craft yet. 

Fueled by her hatred, Star rallies with the rest of her people against the invaders. But upon meeting a young human named Cassy, who obliterates every preconception Star had, the truths she’d known her whole life are challenged. She can’t tell up from down anymore, much less good from bad.

And here you are, back to abstract generalities: obliterates every preconception; tell up from down.

What specifically happens? Cassy isn't evil. How does Star find out? ONE well chosen instance.

But what Star sees now is just the tip of a massive darkness. The colony masquerades for a larger plan. A true evil, which threatens everything Star fights for, bares its teeth hungrily, ready to pounce. And the struggle that unfolds will force Star to choose; abandon her beliefs or die.

And more generalities. "Run! Run! The world is ending" isn't anywhere near as frightening as "I have a gun pointed at your head." In a query, a pointed gun is what you need, not a general call to alarm for every Middlesex village and farm...

oh wait, I digress. That's from Paul Revere's Ride. "The British are coming, the British are coming" is pretty effective of course, but it depends on knowing what those Brits were up to.  We don't have any clue what the Larger Plan, True Evil is up to. Keep the stakes as personal and real as you can.

EYE OF THE STAR is a high action, plot driven novel designed for middle grade readers that mixes elements from past, present, and future.


This doesn't feel at all like a middle grade book to me. For starters the stakes are way too abstract. A middle grade audience is middle schoolers and younger. For those readers, things have to feel real, and to feel real they MUST be personal.

Also middle grade books generally have very young characters. You don't mention any ages here and when I got this I assumed teen age or up for all the characters.

At 50,000 words, this novel this novel sees mankind through the eyes of something no longer human, as she discovers that the world, no, the universe, is not so black and white.

Your sentence structure conveys that this novel discovers the world. She (a pronoun) refers to the preceding noun (in this case this novel).  Again, this kind of writing says you're not yet in command of your craft. 

And repeating "this novel" is such sloppy proofreading that I actually went back to your original email to make sure I did not copy and paste incorrectly.

I don't say this to shame you; my daily blog has at least one typo a day, and there are readers who have fun finding them and letting me know.  BUT your query must rise to a higher standard than daily shark yammering. Your query tells me not just about the story, but about how meticulous you are about your writing.

 This kind of error tells me I'll find more of the same in your book, and more than anything else, that's why I'd say no to this.  I can't read a novel that needs copy editing. Developmental editing sure, but NOT copy editing.

Thank you for your consideration.

You've got a couple big problems here. The biggest one is that I think you need more writing time. You learn to revise by writing and revising. And not by revising the same novel over  and over. You need fresh material to revise. 

I think you might need to read more middle grade. If you haven't read more than 100 middle grade books you haven't read enough. And by read, I do NOT mean just read for fun. Read to see how other authors address the problems you have here (abstract stakes; character ages, etc.)

Read both really good books (those that get awards and Best of Year selections) but also read books that are popular. Those aren't often the same thing.

You don't mention if you're a member of the Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators.  If you're writing middle grade, membership isn't an option. It's a requirement. It's a group of people who have successfully done what you're trying to do and learning from them has lower stakes than starting to query and getting a face full of rejection.

Here's the link for them.   

One very good thing is your initial question. You knew this query wasn't working. You weren't sure why but you did know. That bodes well for you.

The problem isn't your query. Time for a pause, a stretch of reading/writing/reworking.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

#301-Revised twice

 Revision #2
Dear Query Shark:

She-wolf is a nickname Mina Hearst has earned as an elite assassin whose instincts never let her down. She'd like to know who she works for, but she doesn't always get what she wants, unless it's a new pair of Louboutin heels. When she's told she'll have a partner on her most dangerous assignment yet, taking out men at the head of a billion-dollar human and drug trafficking operation, a partner sounds like a good idea. Until she meets his ego.

This is an ok start. I'd keep reading.

I’m leery of “she-wolf” since it’s sort of like “lady surgeon”; surgeon works just find to describe what she does. Mina’s a wolf, you don’t need the “she”

And of course the idea that shoes define a woman’s character is so last century I really hope you can find an alternative.

Mina's partner Cy has no faith in her instincts, but he knows who they work for, and will tell her if she does what he says. When they're sent to a booby-trapped island to eliminate their final target, Mina knows Cy's overcomplicated strategy will probably get them killed. She's willing to take a risk to find out who her employer is, but she knows she can do the job better alone. Problem is, fighting off the island's guards is a two person task.

Well Cy is certainly a piece of work isn’t he? What a douchecanoe.  Why does he have no faith in her instincts? Is he stupid or just blind?

So why the big whup to know who the employer is?

That seems fairly meaningless in the life or death stakes.

If Cy agrees to Mina's strategy, he won't tell her who their boss is, but she'd rather survive. Compromising feels harder than shooting a target a mile away while BASE jumping off a high-rise (Cy brags he did this with one eye closed), but once they're on the island, they'll have no time to figure out how to be a team. Their target has a USA-marked nuclear missile ready to launch at North Korea just for the fun of it, and Cy and Mina are the only people who can stop him.

This really is over wrought. You’ve made everyone and everything too too much. Billion dollar smuggling ring; nuclear missiles; elite assassin; braggart Cy (who sounds like a crazy man).

None of that feels real at all. I know it’s ironic that a novel has to feel real, but it does.  And real is generally not an elite assassin letting some narcissist braggart lead the way. Hell, I’m not an elite assassin but I’d just shoot Cy and bring an attack dog to take down the guards.

KILLER IN HEELS is a 70,000-word suspense novel.

This is not a suspense novel, it’s the concept for one of those movies where the hero fights off a machine gun with a spear and never gets nicked by the hail of bullets.

I think your problem here is the book, not the query.

You’ve got these nuclear missile stakes with two main characters who seem like cartoons (i.e. overblown, able to fall off cliffs without breaking a nail, let alone a bone.)

If you go back and read the first two iterations of this query, you’ll see I’m still talking about the same things, each revision. 

Before you revise again, really dig in to the novel and fix what’s wrong there. Then revise the query.

Revision #1
Dear Query Shark:

She-wolf is a nickname twenty-eight-year-old Mina Hearst earned as one of the world's highest paid assassins. She spends her free time adding to her Louboutin shoe collection and relaxing in bubble baths, but lives for the pleasure of the kill. When she's told she'll have a partner on her next assignment, taking out men at the head of a billion-dollar human and drug trafficking operation, a partner sounds like a good idea. Until she meets his ego.

Well, ok, this isn't bad, but it's not all that interesting either because it relies on cliches (shoes and baths) This feels very superficial and that's not good in the first paragraph of a query.

Mina's new partner Cy looks like a Greek god and knows it. He's the world's most elite assassin, and Mina's instincts mean nothing to him. When they're sent to a guarded island to eliminate their final target--a trigger-happy pedophile with kidnapped children and a collection of nuclear missiles--Cy insists they do things his way. Mina isn't sold on his overcomplicated strategy, but she won't be able to fight off the island's guards without his help.

I'd stop reading here. You can have one or the other but not both: pedophiles OR nuclear missiles. Like the first paragraph this feels superficial. You need a bad guy; here's a pedophile. You need to raise the stakes; here's a nuclear missile.

The everlasting irony of fiction and story telling is that what's not true has to feel true. This feels like a cartoon.

When Cy refuses to compromise, and prepares for their mission with whiskey cocktails and a power nap, Mina knows she must rely on her instincts to get the job done. Soon after going in, the whiskey magnifies Cy's ego, and his reckless behavior almost exposes them. If Mina can't convince him to follow her lead, they won't survive, and their target will bomb the first country his finger touches on his spinning globe.

The plot is that Mina has to convince Cy to follow her lead? Well, that does have the ring of real life, but it doesn't really work here.

The villain is utterly abstract.
There's no sense of a plot.
The characters are not fully developed.

KILLER IN HEELS is a 70,000-word suspense novel. It will appeal to fans of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise series, and Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series.

Mr and Mrs Smith is a movie; it's not an ideal comp for that reason, but also because it's old: 2005. Modesty Blaise is worse; it was published in 1965. 

To be effective comps must be above-all CURRENT, that is no more than two to three years old.
Stephanie Plum first appeared in One For the Money in 1994. I still remember where I was when I read it.

You don't know what you're writing here.You've got a cartoonish Modesty Blaise paired with a highly competent Mrs. Smith, and some New Jersey flibbertigibbet who blows up cars. In a novel about pedophiles and nuclear bombs.

You're probably closest with the Plum novels; go back and read them and see what the plots are. My guess is (and I haven't read one in 15+ years even though I liked them very much) is they were not ever about pedophiles or nuclear bombs.

What you've done here is the classic over reach of new writers: if one is good, three must be three times as good. Restraint is what you need here.  You don't need pedophiles OR nuclear bombs for a taut plot. You don't need to be the world's best assassin to be interesting. You don't need to be a Greek God to be handsome (or a dunderhead.)

Nuance is really important in a well-crafted book.

I don't see any nuance here.  Even in the Stephanie Plum books, there's nuance and restraint. Go back and read them all again, this time with your writer's notebook by your side. Take notes on how Janet Evanovich describes her characters.  Characters come alive when they seem real; I can remember ever single character in those first few books. That's your goal.  And not just here in the query: in the book as well.

When you're reading to study craft, it may help if you treat it like studying. That is, not sitting on your couch with your cat but sitting at your desk. Or better, in the library. The good thing is: this reading is real work. You don't need to feel even slightly guilty for reading ten novels in a row.

Dear Query Shark:

Twenty-eight-year-old Verity Hearst fears being single forever, but solitude isn't so bad, not with a loaded Springfield 1911-A1 pistol and a warm cup of tea to keep her company. She has killed over eighty criminals as one of the world's elite assassins. It's a reputation she has proudly earned alone.

When I see the name Verity, my mind instantly turns to Code Name Verity, a darn good book published a couple years back. Sort of like any character named Ishmael makes me think of that book about the whale.  If you want me to think of Code Name Verity, you have. If you don't, you might think about the names you choose.

And any woman who thinks a warm cup of tea is good company sounds like an idiot. If you're trying for light hearted, you've missed the mark. Books, a cat, even a daily soap opera would be less frothy.

Verity's manager Enoch is her only link to the mysterious company she works for. When he tells her she'll have a male partner on the biggest assignment of her life, taking out three men at the head of a billion-dollar human and drug trafficking operation, she wonders if her employer is doubting her abilities. All she knows is she must maintain her reputation, or die trying.

Really? Why? She's earned her reputation (paragraph one) but we have no sense that it's her entire sense of self-worth (die trying.)

This is hyperbole, and it's death in a suspense novel. A suspense novel is a very delicate creation that must hold our attention, suspend our disbelief and make sense. It's a hat trick of a novel, and a writer can't miss a step, or it will all come crashing down.

Verity's new partner Cy thinks he's the world's greatest assassin. He knows more than she does about everything, including how to pour a cup of tea properly. Doing her job with this smartass doubting her every move is going to be a lot harder than she imagined.

This is so jarring I'm sort of dumbfounded. Up until now we've had a lady assassin with a tea fetish who takes her work too seriously, now we have some guy who's a smart ass.  The tone went from serious (if over wrought) to smartass.  My head is spinning.

And I've stopped reading.
This is where I hit "thanks but no thanks."  

For starters there's not a hint of plot. What does Verity want? What does she care about? What's keeping her from getting what she wants? 

What does the antagonist want? Who IS the antagonist? What does the antagonist care about? (For an exquisite portrayal of an antagonist look no further than Omar in Season One of the The Wire.)

There's no reason to care about Verity at all. Cy is literally one dimension. No one is enticing.

KILLER IN HEELS is a 70,000-word novel of suspense.
There's no suspense.

I would say I have experience as an assassin, but that might get me in trouble.
This is the best line of the query.

I chose to contact you because you are looking for female-centric thrillers.
A novel of suspense is not a thriller, neither is a comic crime novel. You're telling me I can have a cookie cause I like cake. Both are good, but they're not the same thing.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

I'm not sure if you're writing suspense or a comic crime novel here. It's seems more comic than suspenseful right now.

There's no plot, and the characters seem artificial.

I'm not sure if that's a problem with the query, or the novel.