Sunday, May 27, 2018


Question: I’ve had a devil of a time coming up with good, recent comps. One possibility is Christina Dalcher’s VOX, but that’s not yet published and I’ve only read a short excerpt. Another is Ben Winters’s UNDERGROUND AIRLINES, but that’s an dystopian thriller about race, not a dystopian mystery about religion. Is it better to leave out comps entirely?

Dear Query Shark:

Father Rolf Sorenson is a procurator—responsible for spiritual law and order in the Christian Republic. He’s a Priest of the Gun. He barely remembers America before the Awakening, before he began hearing the Voices. They’re his secret curse, those Voices. They hound him with mindless phrases and bits of banned pop songs.

On a cold Chicago night, Rolf takes a call—yet another church suicide, seems like, a woman in a baptismal fount. font. He gives her last rites for good measure. Then the dead woman talks to him using lines from Shakespeare. And tells him she was murdered.

Rolf knows he should close the case as a suicide. If he pursues the woman’s killer, he’ll attract unwanted attention from the clerics in DC and risk exposing his own secret. But Rolf can’t let go: the case could reveal at last what the Voices are and the role they played in transforming America into a theocracy.

PRIEST OF THE GUN is a procedural with supernatural elements, set in a dark future where TRUE DETECTIVE meets THE HANDMAID’S TALE. It’s complete at 99,000 words.

I taught legal writing at (school). I’m now a tenured professor at (a different) Law School and a scholar of National Security Law, which plays a minor role in the novel. I’ve published a couple of pieces in THE NEW REPUBLIC and numerous articles in law journals.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

I'd read this. This is a good solid query. It give us enough world building to know where we are, without overloading details to bog down the pace of the query.

It's also something I haven't seen before, and that's always a good thing.

An of course, the writing is very good.

I'm not sure you need comps here.  I have a good sense of this book without them. 

BUT, if you want to use comps, don't use a book that isn't published. And particularly not one you haven't read in its entirety.

Comps are one way to figure out where a book goes in the bookstore; is it SF or literary for example, would be a question I'd ask here. 

Comps are one way for readers to hear about your book: if you liked that book, you'll like this one.

You want to get as close as you can in category and style.  This book is similar to The Electric Church in setting but I have a feeling it's a lot less violent. You'd have to read TEC to know if it's a good comp AND want to see your book shelved in SF, cause that's what TEC is.

Some agents insist on comps so it's a good idea to include them.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

#310-Revised 1x-FTW

Revision #1

Dear Query Shark,

Seventh grader Scott Winters doesn't know he has superpowers, but it sure would explain a few things. Like why there's a strange girl following him around, handing him blank business cards and picking fights with his bullies. Or why some telekinetic villain suddenly wants him dead

The villain attacks Scott at the school dance. He throws tables and speakers while shouting about how Scott ruined his life. Scott has trouble refuting this claim, because he has no idea who the man is. Fortunately, Scott's new stalker, Rachel Hunter, is secretly a junior superhero working for the FBI. She and her handlers force the villain to flee.

Now safe but thoroughly confused, Scott falls face-first into the hidden world of superpowers. He soon discovers his own powers: Immunity to other superpowers and the ability to suppress them temporarily through physical contact. Scott is ecstatic at the prospect of becoming a superhero, but trying to touch a man who can throw furniture at you from fifty yards away is as dangerous as it sounds. The FBI tell Scott to stay back and let the real heroes work. Scott begrudgingly complies, until one of those real heroes tries to kill him.

With Rachel's help, Scott manages to suppress his attacker's super strength. This somehow causes sudden amnesia. The assailant has no idea where she is or why she attacked Scott. The FBI soon discovers that the telekinetic man was also an unwitting pawn. The real villain is still out there, possessing people like a ghost. Only Scott's unique suppression ability can free the victims. So when the villain's next vessel is none other than Rachel, Scott knows its his turn to be the hero. All he has to do is save the girl... assuming she doesn't kill him first.

How to Save the Girl is the 69,000-word account of Scott's first summer as a superhero. Written by a physicist whose only superpowers are math-related, the work carries a comedic, kid-in-way-over-his-head tone inspired by the early Percy Jackson novels and Stuart Gibbs' Spy School series. [The work also features a schizophrenic deuteragonist with her own character arc.]

Thank you for your consideration, 
 If I acquired middle grade fiction, I'd read this.

Initial query
Question: The query focuses largely on an act 1 subplot involving the MC's female best friend and ignores the main romance interest, whose plot doesn't rev up until late in act 2 (not good for a query). My one page synopsis (not included) is the exact opposite. It ignores the best friend entirely so it can focus on the main romance interest, whose plot structure largely parallels the main plot with the villains. I know you might not be able to answer without the synopsis, but will agents have a problem with this? I'm afraid it will feel too disconnected or misleading.

Dear Query Shark:

Seventh grader Scott Winters doesn't know he has super powers. He just knows he has problems. A bear in his school, a classmate with amnesia, a random rat infestation. Crazy things tend to happen around Scott, and he always gets the blame. So when seven of his classmates mysteriously fall into a lion habitat, Scott knows he's in trouble again. What he doesn't know is that someone just tried to kill him.

This lead paragraph is 72 words, or about 25% of your query. The ONLY information you need here is the first and last sentence.

The paragraph is well-written, and it's pretty funny, BUT it makes me think the book is about Scott getting his friends out of trouble. You don't want me to think the book is one thing when it's really something else.

So revising:

Seventh grader Scott Winters doesn't know he has super powers. He just knows he has problems. A bear in his school, a classmate with amnesia, a random rat infestation. Crazy things tend to happen around Scott, and he always gets the blame. So when seven of his classmates mysteriously fall into a lion habitat, Scott knows he's in trouble again. What he doesn't does know is that someone just tried to kill him.

Meanwhile, Scott's best friend is also in danger. Schv√§rtzmurgel Hoffman is three parts tomboy, two parts snark. Just don't try using her first name — she'll punch you. Schizophrenia and a terrible fashion sense earn her plenty of ridicule at school, but Hoffman's real trouble lies at home. Scott finds her with a black eye the next day. Her mother's hitting her again.

Wait. Schizophrenia? Where did that come from? And equating a debilitating mental illness with terrible fashion sense is both tone deaf and weird.

In addition, this paragraph does not relate in any way to the first paragraph. You left me wondering who's trying to kill Scott in paragraph one. Paragraph two should be something about that, not this odd curveball.

Scott already tried contacting the authorities about Hoffman's situation, but they don't believe him. Somehow Hoffman's mother always convinces the other adults that nothing's wrong. Scott settles for inviting Hoffman over as often as possible, but even this plan is jeopardized when another attempt is made on Scott's life. This time the villain reveals himself — a tall man with telekinetic abilities.

Ok so now we have the villain. You'll have to cut out all the stuff about Miss Hoffman (notice you've told us what NOT to call her, but not what her preferred name is) cause it doesn't relate AT ALL to what you've said is the main plot: someone trying to kill Scott.

Running for their lives, Scott and Hoffman are thrust into the hidden world of superpowers. Scott soon discovers his own unique power, immunity to other superpowers and the ability to suppress them temporarily. He also meets three empowered FBI agents. They take Scott and Hoffman into protective custody, which shines a spotlight on Hoffman's home life.

At this point I'm too confused to read on. What is "the hidden world of superpowers?" Where did the FBI come from? 

Scott doesn't have high hopes, but the superpowered branch of the FBI is better equipped than the local authorities. They identify Hoffman's mom as a psychic, able to manipulate the thoughts of others. It's such a dangerous power that the FBI asks Scott for help. His ability to suppress superpowers is ideal for shutting down psychics, but the telekinetic man is still at large. Scott now faces a difficult choice. Keep hiding for his own safety, or risk another attack to protect his friend.

If Hoffman's mom is a key part of the plot, you can still leave out all the abuse stuff in your query. A query needs to be sleek, not stuffed.

Written by a physicist who picked up creative writing as a way to stay sane in graduate school, HOW TO SAVE THE GIRL is a fast-paced tale full of quirky characters and superheroic hijinks. The work is 68,500 words, with a narrative style inspired by the Percy Jackson novels and Stuart Gibbs' "Spy School" series. While there is scattered humor throughout, the story does not make light of child abuse.

Doesn't make light of child abuse? Why on earth would I even think you'd do that? Don't defend yourself against accusations that haven't been made.

I don't care why you want to be a writer.

I hope there is more than scattered humor cause this is a middle grade book about superpowers. Funny is the ONLY way its going to work.

Right now this query is over stuffed. Focus on the MAIN plot.

I'm totally put off by the idea there's a romance in a middle grade novel but that's probably cause I'm thinking of romance novels. Middle grade novels are read by 4th-6th graders. I'm absolutely sure that a strong romantic element is out of place here. Boys and girls being friends is about the max on this kind of thing.

That the plot doesn't rev up until "late in Act 2" is a HUGE problem, in that when I request a full manuscript, the plot better be revved up and running by the end of Act 1 and preferably a lot sooner.

If not, I stop reading.

Middle grade readers aren't going to sit around and wait for the good stuff either.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

To answer your question: a query that doesn't match the synopsis IS confusing. The fact that they don't means you have a problem WITH THE BOOK. 

This means, before you revise the query, make sure the plot of your book is front and center in the very first pages.  

Then revise your query.

I also suspect you would benefit from reading more middle grade books. Your librarian can help you with that. She's superpowered that way.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

#309-Revised once

 Revision #1
Dear Query Shark,

It seems like a dream gig when Chloe gets the job offer – live in Montreal’s Underground City for a full year and blog about the experience. The flip side of the city has all the creature comforts. The year will fly by.

As if.
That's the wrong phrase here because "as if" is essentially "it'll be a cold day in hell before the QueryShark is nice to writers." If you substitute "it'll be a cold day in hell before the year will fly by" you see it doesn't work.

When I read your query I don't assess why something doesn't work, I just think "that doesn't sound right."  It's not a deal breaker this early in the query, but I'm now on alert for other things that seem off.

Not a week into her assignment, Chloe is roughed up by Scout, a young homeless woman living in the Underground City. When Chloe later stumbles across her attacker and corners her, a flicker of sympathy rises up in her for this troubled runaway struggling to survive underground, fleeing a threat she refuses to disclose.

Chloe’s no bleeding heart. She’s always looked out for number one. But this chance run-in unhinges her, and acting against all her instincts she sets herself up as Scout’s protector.

And here's the next instance. "Unhinges her" is wrong, unless you mean this chance run-in send her into a mental health breakdown. That doesn't seem logical at all. It seems like a real over reaction.

No good deed goes unpunished. Soon a whole cast of vulnerable characters crawls out of the underground woodwork hoping that Chloe will put them under her wing too. She gives in to serving as their lifeline, and plunges into her new role as guardian angel of the underground’s unprotected.

And here's the third: "put them under her wing" is wrong. "Take them under her wing" is the phrase.

At this point, we've got three clunky word choices, and no antagonist. That means I'm skimming the rest of the query.

Unaccustomed as she is to do-gooding, Chloe seeks her grandmother’s help, and together they set up a safe-house to care for her new coterie of dependents. But when Scout runs off from her bespoke shelter, putting the lives of all the others in danger, Chloe has to decide how far she is willing to go to prevent Scout from sabotaging the subterranean refuge she has turned herself inside-out to create.

bespoke shelter? Bespoke means tailored, or custom made,  for an individual. This safe house was set up for the coterie. Again, poorly chosen word.

Why does Scout running off put anyone in danger? 

TUCKED AWAY, my third novel, weighs in at 90,000 words and is complete.  My previous novels, XXX and YYY, were accepted after direct submission to two Canadian indie publishers, but I am hoping with this go-round to find representation.  I have also had short stories appear in numerous literary magazines, among them Agni, Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Fire.

The first chapter of TUCKED AWAY is included below. Thank you for your time and consideration.

 I'm not sure what went wrong with the word choices here. It wasn't in the first version of the query.
You still don't have an antagonist, which means you have a problem with the book most likely, not just the query.

Go back to your novel and answer these questions:

1. What does Chloe want?
2. Who or what is keeping her from getting it?
3. What will she have to give up or lose to get what she wants?
4. What bad thing will happen if she doesn't get what she wants?
5. What worse thing will happen if she does?

This is predicated on Chloe being the protagonist.  You should be able to answer these questions for the antagonist too, even if it's not in the query.

Bottom line: I have no sense of what the story is here. Chloe helps homeless people ...and then?


Am I taking a risk that an agent will think the Underground City is some futuristic, contrived location when in fact it’s an actual part of the Montreal downtown landscape where people shop and live and work? Does it matter?
I won a short story award in 2010. Is this too ancient to include?

Dear Query Shark,

It seems like a dream gig when Chloe gets the job offer – live in Montreal’s Underground City for a full year and blog about the experience. The flip side of the city has all the creature comforts. The year will fly by.

This is a good opening.

But there’s a catch.

To collect her whopping bonus for sticking it out till day 365, the struggling grad student must agree never to set so much as a toe outside the territory of the Underground City, submitting to an ankle-monitor to keep her on the straight and narrow. The would-be blogger doesn’t have much choice, even if the conditions are hard-core. Out of work, impaled by debt, and sole support of a grandmother whose bank account is likewise on life-support, Chloe signs on the dotted line.

I have a real antipathy about describing one character in several ways in short order. You have "struggling grad student" "wold be blogger" and then you have all those things again with "out of work, impaled by debt" with the bonus of sole support of grandma. 

Your reader doesn't need that much description, and it gets in the way of what we do need to know: the plot. Which we don't so far. In other words: what's at a stake.

And that’s when her life goes into free fall.

With Chloe not at home to nix the idea, her grandmother invites her new acquaintances, the Diallos, to hole up in her basement after the family’s refugee application is returned to them stamped get lost. Chloe’s fury at discovering her grandmother has converted the basement into a safe-house for a family of five morphs into relief when she stumbles across a desperate illegal of her own who needs protecting.

And this is where the query goes to Helvetica in a handbasket. You started with a pretty interesting idea: Chloe has to live in the Underground City for a year, no sneaking out for a quick trip to Vegas.

Now we've got immigrants, and grandma going nuts, and another immigrant that Chloe knows. For starters that's too many people in a query. And we still don't have any sense of the plot.

Scout, a runaway hiding out in the Underground City, is fleeing a threat she refuses to disclose. When she comes out the loser in an underground turf fight, Chloe dispatches the battered girl to her grandmother’s where Dr. Diallo can care for her in secret.

And here's where I'd stop reading. Still no plot. A new character out of the blue, and zero sense of what's at stake for Chloe. 

The reason I'd stop reading is you're all over the place here. There's no focus, no sense of moving the narrative forward. If I don't see that here in the query, I won't see it in the book.

As the ugly details of Scout’s past emerge, putting at risk the entire crew harboured in her grandmother’s makeshift refuge, Chloe has to decide if she’s prepared to lay her cushy future on the line to rescue a group of virtual strangers from discovery and ruin.

what? WHAT? This book is about the people in Grandma's basement, not Chloe's year underground?
You START with that: Chloe is away on a year long gig, not allowed to come home so her Grandma goes nuts and invites people to live in her house.

What's at stake for Chloe here? If she leaves Underground City she's not any worse off is she? She doesn't have to sacrifice anything or lose anything no matter what she chooses or decides. That's death in a book because it means there's no tension.

TUCKED AWAY, my third novel, weighs in at 90,000 words and is complete. My previous novels, XXX and YYY, were accepted after direct submission to two Canadian indie publishers, but I am hoping with this go-round to find representation. I have also had short stories appear in numerous literary magazines, among them Agni, Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Fire.

The first chapter of TUCKED AWAY is included below. Thank you for your time and consideration.

This query doesn't work. To fix it first, figure out what the plot is, particularly what's at stake for Chloe and Grandma (if they are the main characters.) Who's the antagonist? What does s/he want? Why/how is Chloe getting in the way of that goal?

As for your two questions: I think it's clear that Underground City is real. It's certainly clear this is a contemporary novel, not and SFF novel.

A short story award in 2010 is fine but don't list that first. List your novels first.

Sunday, May 6, 2018


QUESTION: This is a mash-up of genres, a comedic business-world satire and romance. And, while it's about a sex portal, there are only a couple of sweet, not-so-explicit sex scenes. Is this hopeless and, if not, am I selling it right?

Dear Query Shark:

Bopper Dinneman, code god, thinks he's just landed his dream gig: chief technology officer for a company building a streaming virtual reality website devoted to sex.

It seems like the perfect job for a horny 28-year-old technology whiz kid -- glamour, plenty of venture capital, and a bevy of “content providers” recruited from San Francisco's talent pool of enthusiastic and creative sex workers. Add to this a boss who's a dead ringer for Lara Croft, and you've made Bopper a very happy man.

You've essentially repeated what you told us in the first paragraph, albeit with more detail. In other words you haven't moved us forward.

As Bopper and his crew of coders get busy building the next generation of X-rated video chat, he’s getting to know women in a whole new way. There's only one glitch—it turns out that the company is run by the Mafia. Like everyone else, The Family wants to disrupt their business model.

Huh? My experience with the mob is limited to repeated viewings of The Godfather, and a whole lot of crime novels, but my sense is the Mob doesn't want to disrupt anything. They want you to make tons of money, and give them a chunk of it.

When you write something like this in a query, something that makes my eyebrows go all quizzical, you need to tell me WHY the mob wants to disrupt their business model.

Bopper and his crew will have to use persuasion, cunning and some martial arts training to wrest control away from the old-guard Mafia dons, so they can take a shot at turning their ideal of a tech-loving, sex-positive business into reality.

or what?
The stakes here seem really weird: they want to run their business in a sex-positive way? What happens if they can't? 

Narrated from deep in Bopper's id, Streaming is a 50,000-word satire of the startup world and a romcom. It's like if Ready Player One took place today and was written by a business journalist instead of a video gamer. It’s sexy but not explicit; at its heart, it’s about our need for connection in a disconnected world.

I have no idea what "narrated from deep in Bopper's id" means. I had to look up id. I know it's one of the parts of the mind, but past that, nothing. (id: the part of the mind in which innate instinctive impulses and primary processes are manifest.)

Once I looked it up, I still had no idea what you meant. That's not a good thing in a query.

And I get NO sense of what "our need for connection in a disconnected world" has to do with the mafia wanting to disrupt a sex portal.

And by portal, I think you mean something other than a window into another world (as in The Breach by Patrick Lee.)  When words have multiple meanings and your reader might not know all of them, some context or a different word is useful.

As to your question: this isn't a mash up of genres. It's satire. A category (like satire) can have a story line about a romance without being a romance novel or worse, a mashup of genres.  A mashup of genres is something like Jane Slayre

I'm not sure there's enough plot on the page here to entice me, even withstanding these other problems. The idea that a business might have to change seems pretty low-stakes to me.