Monday, December 13, 2021

#339 Revision #1


Question: When comping a series, does the 3-year rule apply to the most recent installment or to the first?  What if the series hasn't been concluded yet? 

You want to use comps that are as close to the specs of your book as you can. That means using the first book of any series because yours is the first book in your series. And you want that first book to have been pubbed recently, no earlier than 2018 and 2019 is better.

If you're banging your head against the wall on a comp search, you're doing it right. 


Dear Query Shark,


Three years ago, Aman once had an entire barn full of horses he loved.  Unfortunately for them, the Düzen were desperate for food.


Three years ago, Düzen soldiers invaded Aman's village, slaughtering the animals he had been entrusted with.   

Let's put this sentence about the Düzen soldiers in the first paragraph, then start the next paragraph where there's a shift in time.



Three years ago, Aman once had an entire barn full of horses he loved.  Unfortunately for them, the Düzen were desperate for food.  Düzen soldiers invaded Aman's village, slaughtering the animals he had been entrusted with.



 New paragraph here for shift in time.

Now in his early twenties, Aman serves in the Corthiaks' heavy cavalry, hiding his guilt, grief, and self-loathing from his fellow soldiers.  His only source of hope, the one horse he has left, is old and inexperienced with combat—far from an ideal war horse.   


I stumbled over source of hope here because we don't have any sense of what Aman wants. You've described how he is now, but not what he wants.


Surrounded by hardened warriors and their younger, better-trained steeds, (some of whom aren't even horses,) Aman can't help but wonder if he or his horse really belong here.


I am intrigued by a cavalry that doesn't have horses, that's a nice detail to include. 


The Düzen have a new king, named Karib, and he wants peace with the Corthiaks.   


And here is where I lose the thread of the plot. 


Aman is sent to recount the story of his village to Karib, but he didn't take his last horse into war so that he could forgive the Düzen.  

After all, Karib believes that animal welfare means nothing in times of human suffering.  He and his soldiers would kill this horse in a heartbeat, along with anything else that isn't human.  


 Well, the Düzen should all burn in hell of course BUT you've set them up here. In the first paragraph, they slaughtered horses for food. Understandable but yucky. But here they are simply equicidal maniacs and that's a whole different bucket of entrails.

If Karib wants peace, what's standing in his way? What does Aman need to do?

Whether from a negotiator's seat or a war saddle, Aman must show Karib that animals are worth more than their weight on a butcher's scale. 

or what? The or what is what's at stake, and that's what you need here. 


 One will have him face difficult questions about the value of animal life and the ethics of eating meat, but the other will pit him against hordes of infantry that outnumber the Corthiaks forty to one, volleys of arrows that darken the skies, and rideable, venomous, twenty-foot carnivorous lizards.   


This sentence is 49 words long. That means it's got too much information in it for your reader to absorb easily.  Let's cut it down to two or three shorter sentences for easier understanding. 


 One will have him face difficult questions about the value of animal life and the ethics of eating meat.

One what? It's not clear who/what you mean. 


 Nothing is more off-putting in an otherwise good query than the idea the book is some message driven polemic. No one reads novels to hear about the ethics of eating meat. They read novels for the story.


If you want themes about the ethics of eating meat in the novel, that's up to you, but here in the query focus on the story.


but The other will pit him against hordes of infantry that outnumber the Corthiaks forty to one, volleys of arrows that darken the skies, and rideable, venomous, twenty-foot carnivorous lizards.   


This is an odd choice in that they don't seem to be alternatives. You can philosophize about eating meat while you battle lizards. There doesn't seem to be an either/or here, and that's what you need. 


Either way, he cannot hope to succeed without his fellow cavalrymen, and the horse who has carried him all this way.

CURSORIAL is an 82,000-word work of adult fantasy. You can add here: It explores themes of the ethics of eating plants etc.  

You can mention themes here (rather than above). I know I've said in earlier QS posts that you don't need them, and you don't BUT it can help elevate the query beyond plot points and characters.


It will appeal to fans of The Masquerade (by Seth Dickinson) 

When you list comps in a query, the first thing I do is look at the books on Amazon. The Masquerade appears to be the name of the series, not the first book. And the first book, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, was pubbed in 2016.   You need to use titles of books, not series. Sales figures are by book, and that's what we look at.  And of course, the book is too old to be an effective comp.

 But the description of the book is utterly compelling. 

Tomorrow, on the beach, Baru Cormorant will look up and see red sails on the horizon.

The Empire of Masks is coming, armed with coin and ink, doctrine and compass, soap and lies. They will conquer Baru’s island, rewrite her culture, criminalize her customs, and dispose of one of her fathers. But Baru is patient. She'll swallow her hate, join the Masquerade, and claw her way high enough up the rungs of power to set her people free.

To test her loyalty, the Masquerade will send Baru to bring order to distant Aurdwynn, a snakepit of rebels, informants, and seditious dukes. But Baru is a savant in games of power, as ruthless in her tactics as she is fixated on her goals. In the calculus of her schemes, all ledgers must be balanced, and the price of liberation paid in full.

 If I saw that in a query I'd fall all over myself to request the full.

The closer you can come to this vivid writing, the better.


and The Unbroken (by C. L. Clark).


 Don't put parentheses around the author's names.

I've seen a lot of that recently. There's probably some query advice that says to do so, but don't. 


I'm an equestrian, and an absolute geek for natural history, paleontology, medieval warfare, power metal music, and the color green. This is a terrific bio. It's the most vivid thing in the query. That tells me you're holding back in the query, maybe trying to be all serious and business like. Businesslike does not mean flat. Vivify!


Thank you for your time and consideration.

 I don't have a sense of the plot there that would compel me to request a full.

What does Aman want?

What does Karib want?

What's getting in the way of each of them getting it?

What choices do they face?  What sacrifices will be required?


Don't get lost in the weeds with lizards and vegans.

Focus on the plot. 




Original query

Question: I realize my comp titles are rather old, but I find them to be the best representatives of the emotional tone of this story. I've literally had beta readers tell me that they can't think of comp titles, so I went with my gut on this one. Is it a dealbreaker that the most recent comp title is almost 20 years old now?


Comp titles need to be recent, no more than three years old (no earlier than 2018).

It's not up to your beta readers to find them (nice try). This is your job.

Dear Query Shark,

Aman once had an entire barn full of horses he loved. Today, only one of them is still alive.

Aman and his horse, Arty, barely survived when the Sacramouth army invaded their village and slaughtered everything in sight.

I thought Sacramouth was a person. Turns out, later in the query, it's a country. To avoid that misapprehension you might add the army.

Three years have since passed, and Aman and Arty now serve in Aerdoth's heavy cavalry together, seeking vengeance against the people who took everything from them.

You need to tell us what problem Aman faces. You have to get plot on the page here.

To Aman's dismay, the King of Sacramouth agrees to host a series of peace talks with Aerdoth. Aman is sent as an ambassador to recount his story to the King, but refuses to forgive him for what his country did. However, as the peace talks begin, the King proves to be more persuasive than even Aman could have foreseen.

Persuasive about what? The last thing you want to do in a query is be coy!

The threat of war looms throughout the negotiations, and Aman faces difficult questions about the value of animal life, his own capability, and the relationships that he chooses to make. His only hopes of success lie within his own intuition, his fellow cavalrymen, and of course, Arty.

The plot is not clear. Aman faces difficult questions, ok, but what problem does he have? You've said his only hope of success, but success at what? Plot must be on the page.

CURSORIAL is a 55,000-word war story that skirts the line between fantasy and ecofiction.

This is fantasy. The question is which shelf: adult or MG.

You have an adult plot and it sounds like Aman is also an adult (or at least not a child.)

But 55K is way too short for an adult fantasy novel. Fantasy needs world building and world building needs words. And the comps below are kids.

It closely follows the bond between horse and rider,

Really? Cause there's no sense of that here in the query.

inspired greatly by works such as War Horse (by Michael Morpurgo) and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. The story can stand alone, but is also the first of a planned series.

War Horse is for grades 4-7. Spirit is an animated movie (not a book) ie for kids. That and your word count signal make me think this is not an adult book.

I'm an equestrian, and an absolute geek for natural history, paleontology, medieval warfare, and the color green.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Another thing that leaps off the page to me is the plethora of A-names: Aman, Arty, Aerdoth.

But the biggest problem here is you don't know your shelf. You've got adult themes, and MG comps.

This is confusing, and confusing often leads to an instant pass.

If you can't find suitable comps, you're searching too narrowly OR you haven't read enough in your category.

If you're having trouble finding comps you might try reading reviews in Publishers Weekly (which is NOT the same as Publishers Marketplace). Your library has a subscription to PW, but they don't put it out in the circulation area. You'll have to ask. Read the reviews going back a year or two. It will take you a while, but it's worth it.

Get plot on the page, and get comps that reflect the book.


Sunday, November 7, 2021


Dear QueryShark:

College is supposed to be full of new experiences, but a failed assassination attempt shouldn’t be one of them. At least, that’s Anna Michael’s opinion.



You want your first sentence to be as taut and compelling as possible.

Reordering the sentences will help with that:


College is supposed to be full of new experiences, but 

A failed assassination attempt shouldn’t be one of the new experiences of college.  


This is awkwardly worded but you get the idea. Start with the thing that's going to hook your reader's attention. 


 But when you look at that revised sentence, it still doesn't really do the job well, does it?


Revision is almost never one and done (well, typos: fix and finished)

So, let's remember that starting with the main character's name is almost always a good idea.


Anna Michaels wasn't expecting an attempt on her life to be one of her new college experiences

Still not great, but that's also the nature of revision.

So let's reorder the elements again:


Anna Michaels didn't think one of her new college experiences would be surviving an attempt on her life.



You prod and poke and try a gazillion ways to make this sound taut and compelling.


 Once you think you've got it, let it rest for at least a day, then go back the next day and look at it with fresh eyes.


At least, that’s Anna Michael’s opinion.

I think we can all agree this is not something we think is a benefit of enrolling in college.

The problem with starting with something as attention getting as a failed assassination attempt is that your reader is keen to know what happens next.


And if you don't provide that info, the reader is disappointed.


There is no connection between how you start and the next paragraph.

All Anna wants is to find her father’s murderer and protect her mother. 

And what does this have to do with her going to college? 

Did you include college to signal her age?

I think that's going to confound you if college is never mentioned again.


And now she’s fleeing her hometown with two strangers who claim to know her better than she knows herself. They introduce her to a world that exists alongside her own, a world where a girl can walk through walls and a boy can affect time.


Unless walking through walls and affecting time are gender-specific abilities you might reconsider how you describe them.

She uncovers a forgotten childhood where she grew up surrounded by magic . . . as the daughter of the king and queen. And a deadly coup has just made Anna the sole member of the monarchy. 

being specific usually helps your reader get a fuller picture. Anna is the sole surviving member of the monarchy not just the sole member.

The strangers, Brie and her brother Max, want Anna to save the magical community. It means discovering who wants to end the monarchy—and why. Were they responsible for the death of her father? As Anna gets involved deeper and deeper into the insurgency . . . she might not be on the right side of this war after all. 

Really? Why?

What's at stake here?

The King and Queen are dead, Anna is the next in line.

So what?

In other words, what happens if she isn't on the right side?

What's at stake for her? For the kingdom?

Max knows more about her altered memories than he’s willing to tell her. Even though she trusts him with her life, maybe even falls in love with him, she knows she shouldn’t. A relationship with him would mean forfeiting the crown and everything they’re fighting for.

Anna must decide if finding her father’s killer and stepping into the role of queen is worth the sacrifice of her identity and family, when she’s already lost her parents and the woman who raised her. She learns one thing: It will be the death of Anna Michaels.

Long live the Queen.

SIX & TIME (123,000)  is a New Adult


New Adult isn't really a category you want to use.

It started off being just what you'd think it would be: books for people who are post-YA. Then it morphed into something more like erotica light: 50 Shades of Something Wicked This Way Comes kinda thing.


If your main characters are college age, this is adult fantasy.


But the problem here is that you're describing a book that uses many themes associated with YA.


Confusing indeed.

When agents are confused, they pass.  Clarity is essential in a query.

contemporary fantasy novel complete at 123,000 words.  

You don't need to say it's complete. That's assumed.


This is the first in a planned series. It will appeal to fans of Avatar: the Last Airbender and The Ash Princess (by Laura Sebastian).


Always include the author with the title of your comp books.

Titles are not subject to copyright; more than one book can be called The QueryShark's Guide to Tasteful Writers.


Also The Ash Princess is YA.  Your comps must be on the same shelf as your book. (You'll gnash your teeth trying to find NA comps, which is another indicator you need to revise the ages, or the category)


While I work with numbers as a tax professional during the day, I am ruled by writing at all hours.


This is the kind of hyperbolic statement that makes you sound like an amateur.

I hope you've got a life other than writing.


This is the kind of thing that makes you sound LESS enticing not more.


Leave it for another forum.


 I am pursuing my Master in Fine Arts with a focus in Creative Writing. (you might want to add which school)

Thank you for your consideration. 




- Here's where I shoot myself in the foot. This book can NOT stand alone. I know, I know. But I reached 100,000 at the "halfway" mark of the original novel, so I decided to split it in two with a cliffhanger ending.


Talk about one quick way to make your readers HATE YOU.


Back in the day when cliffhangers were more the norm, you only had to wait a week to find out what happened.


There can be a year between Book One and Book Two.

Some are faster, but the fastest I've ever seen was three months.


You're asking NEW fans to wait three months to resolve things?

This is a recipe for disaster. And disaster these days means being trashed on Goodreads, Amazon and any other forum people can use to complain in.


The closest I've read to a cliffhanger recently was Lee Child's 61 Hours (pubbed March 18, 2010) and resolved in Worth Dying For (October 19, 2010). It was his 14th book, not his debut.


I could always remove a subplot or two, but part of the reason why this novel works is it takes the tired "royal chosen one with elemental magic" trope and turns it around - without the layers, this book is generic as hell. 


 It would help if that were on the page here, but it's not.



Revise and resend.







Sunday, October 31, 2021


WYSTERIA Wysteria Collins

don't cap the names of your characters in a query. That's for synopses and film scripts.

 is the twenty-four year old owner of a magic shop in downtown Olympia, Washington. She runs it with her familiar, a turtle named PANTS Pants. Things are her normal brand of chaos until her dear friend PRISCILLA Priscilla calls in a favor.

The Fae


In a short form work like a query, it REALLY helps if you don't call characters two different things in short order. Were you worried about using Priscilla's name twice in short succession?

You can avoid that by paring and combining the sentences:


Things are her normal brand of chaos until her dear friend Priscilla calls in a favor


can’t break her promise to go on a date and  

persuades Wysteria to go on a date in her place. It’s supposed to be a one time event, except that Wysteria likes ARIEL Ariel and he didn’t seem put off by the way she had to chase her turtle across the restaurant floor.


The story is told in a series of vignettes, ranging from comforting a grief-stricken student with a request for necromancy, to an excitable baseball coach. There’s a visit to the beach that ends with bartering with mermaids, and the time Ariel shows up unannounced with a lost snake.


Well this sounds fun and all but there's NO PLOT.

Even a series of vignettes needs a plot, and worse: each vignette needs one, plus you need an overarching story arc.


WYSTERIA AND PANTS is a 60,000 word adult fantasy

I'm not convinced you have enough word count here.  The previous Query Shark post is about a book that's got too many words.


You've got the opposite problem.  Fantasy needs world building. World building takes words.

And not having a plot means you're going to need to add words too. You can double the word count here and still be ok.



 #ownvoices novel with series potential featuring a diverse cast of queer characters.

 #ownvoices is being replaced with #specific under represented voice you mean.

Here's the announcement about that:

We Need Diverse Books announced that it will no longer refer to books using the term #OwnVoices. Instead, they will use "specific descriptions that authors use for themselves and their characters whenever possible (for example "Korean American author" or "autistic protagonist").  They write in the release that the hashtag was originally created "for readers to recommend books by authors who openly shared the diverse identity of their main characters," but has since become a "catch all marketing term" and caused problems with its vagueness.



Most agents now want to see comps in a query. Effective comps are recent books (no earlier than 2018) and published by a trade house (ie not self published), and on the same shelf you envision for your book. Don't use YA titles as comps for books for the adult trade market (or vice versa.)


I moved from California to Washington to live with my shouty cat Icarus where I enjoy wandering around in the greenery and eating blackberries from my bush. I’ve been involved in a writing and critique group since 2015 and together we have published several collections of short stories.


Nice but NOT a publishing credit. Leave that for your website.


Thank you for your time and consideration,



Fae/faer or they/them






    I want to be clear that the chapters are a little disconnected but still related without sounding like they’re short stories all to themselves.


"A little disconnected" strikes fear in even my sharkly heart. You don't want your novel to feel like a pinball game where the reader caroms about.  That's NOT an immersive reading experience.


A novel in stories is very much a thing, and are lots of fun to read. Is there any way to make that happen?




    Will it put agents off to include my pronouns?  How should I handle this?

Put off?


I'm tickled fuchsia to have writers indicate their pronouns.

It's helpful for gender fluid names (Dylan!) plus if you are non-binary, I'd like to respect that.


While I don't have a clue what fae/faer is, I do recognize they/them. How you have it listed is just right.


Any agent who is put off by pronouns in a query is NOT someone you want to work with.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021


Dear Query Shark,

When Wren’s weird dreams begin to take on a reality all their own, she finds a strangely addictive second life in her dangerous dream-world, Irisen

This doesn't really hook your reader, does it? There's no tension. There's no sense of wondering what will happen next.


Compare that to the first line of Leviathan Wakes by James Corey


The Scopuli had been taken eight days ago, and Julie Mao was finally ready to be shot.


Now THAT grabs my attention.


Back on Earth, things are unraveling; her father’s recent cancer diagnosis is fracturing her family and Wren’s painstakingly organized post-college plans now feel futile.


Still no tension. What's the problem here that Wren must deal with?

Feeling futile is not a problem. It's a state of being. (for many of us in publishing, it's just called today)


While exploring Irisen, she teams up with Jasper—a headstrong botanist with reality-defying experiments—and his band of gung-ho rebels bent on undermining the oppressive autocracy that controls the region. 


I kinda love the idea of a headstrong botanist!

But you've brought in oppressive autocracy here like that's all we need to know.


Are they censoring free speech?

Are they making you read Ayn Rand?

What's the autocracy doing such that they need overthrowing?

In other words: what's the problem with the autocracy?


Notice a theme here?

You need to get the problem these characters face on the page, specifically. That's the essence of plot. Without it you don't have a compelling query.


On Earth, Wren is powerless and reminded of it every time she tallies the furniture stains in the oncologist’s waiting room. On Irisen, she’s useful; it’s a relief to fight a fight she can shape.


This is interesting.



Despite the wear and tear of a dichotomous existence,


I suggest you take this out only because if you try to explain it (it's too abstract to have much meaning as it stands) you'll just get lost in the weeds.


living two lives proves to be the revival Wren needs. Learning to build bombs from botanicals and helping the rebels subvert the autocracy, Wren all but disregards the woes of her Earth-life reality—until those woes clutch and drag her back. The day her father’s diagnosis goes from open-ended to terminal, her ability to dream-travel to Irisen mysteriously fails. With time running out on both her father’s life and Jasper’s rebellion, Wren must find the link between her realities (tricky, but doable) and face her circumstances at home (way fucking harder) before everything she loves is lost. 


DREAMWALKER, at 250,000 words,



instant pass.


If you don't want to take my word for it, how about these two recent tweets from agents I know and follow:







is a multi-perspective fantasy novel and the first in a planned series. The conversational tone, along with the layered worldbuilding will resonate with the twenty-something set currently reading Black Water Sister.


My academic background is in biology, and I have a soft spot for botany and bending the rules. And though I’d love to tinker in Jasper’s lab, filled to the brim with magical flora, I work in healthcare rehabilitating broken and neglected bodies… by day. 


Thank you for your time and consideration,




1. I like thick books: GOT, Pillars, Mistborn (don't fret, not my comps), and I like them because there are plots, subplots, and what-the-heck,-where-is-this-going?-OH-DANG! moments. But I'm a nobody. Do I cut plots/ characters now to make the WC more appealing, or do I risk it for the biscuit?


No. You make this 250,000 word door stop into three books.



2. Wren is the MC, but the story is told through multiple POV. This isn't represented in the ‘hook’ of my query, should it be? The other characters add twists, turns, eyes and ears in different locations (ie: Jasper's POV in Irisen). Thoughts?


Even if I hadn't fainted dead away at the mere idea of 250,000 words, your query does NOT support the word count.


You've got one storyline: Wren


You need a lot more.


Querying epic fantasy (epic anything) means you have to give us a sense of the big picture.


What you have here is the Winterfell aspect of Game of Thrones.

You're missing the dragons.


You need to figure out how to present this Incredible Hulk word count in more Bruce Banner type ways.



And you need to make the story more Hulk than Banner. 


Kind of an interesting problem.


I look forward to seeing how you solve it.


Revise and resend.