Saturday, February 28, 2015

#269-revised twice

Revision #2

Sandra Lee Johnson's fledgling career as a government assassin may have been permanently derailed.

This makes me think that Sandra is just a new assassin but later you write:

"Sandra has survived for years as a killer-for-hire" 
so "fledgling career" is the wrong phrase here. If I change agencies, I wouldn't describe it as a "fledgling career" as a shark for RoyaltiesAreUs.  I'd  simply have a new place to hang my hat.

All because of one man.

Sandra's new employer, a DIA sub-contractor, recruited her because she could kill without remorse. She was perfect for their off-the-books charter: exterminate key terrorist supporters in such a horrific way that others would be convinced to find new occupations.

Sandra's first mission took her to Dubai, where she was supposed to terminate a high-level terrorist financier named Muhammad al-Abtari. Only one problem: unknown to anyone outside the CIA, al-Abtari was a highly prized Company asset.

Joe Armbruster, al-Abtari's handler, was aware that some unidentified group had been offing terrorists in heinous ways, and that his pet Islamist was next on their list. So he set up a sting using al-Abtari as bait.

You've solved almost all of the tone problem but it resurfaces here with "pet Islamist"

It almost worked.

Sandra managed to escape without being compromised, but Armbruster strongly suspected her involvement. Although he knew her only by an assumed name, he had seen her face.
Her organization's response was to spirit her away until they could get her off the CIA's 'Most Wanted' list.

Sandra prefers a more direct approach.

She knows it's not Armbruster's fault. Bad luck all around. Still, if you play in the killing fields, you know your death may be necessary to serve a larger purpose.

Sandra has survived for years as a killer-for-hire, so she knows how to murder and get away cleanly. Armbruster will make a very challenging target - exactly what she desires.

Unless he gets to her first.
The problem here isn't the query. You've got a good one now (once you fix that last issue with tone). The problem is what's at stake: nothing. It's a cat and mouse game between two people I don't really care about. Sandra, the remorseless killer, and Joe, the guy trying to stop her.  There's no larger issue, like the Fall of the Roman Empire, or the Coup Against The Queen of the Known Universe.

Think about the great cat and mouse game movie Hopscotch (based on the book by Brian Garfield). What's at stake there is the reputation of the CIA, but the difference is we really care about the Walter Matthau character and want him to prevail.  In your query, one side seems as bad as the other.

Assuming we're going to root against the terrorists just because they're terrorists doesn't really work. 

The question then becomes: who is the protagonist? Is it Joe or Sandra? We don't have to like either of them, but we must want one to prevail. 

In Ken Follett's masterful Key To Rebecca, we are introduced to the antagonist, and he has our sympathy for several chapters. Very slowly we come to realize he's the bad guy.  

The query for that book however would START with the fact that there is a spy in Cairo who can change the course of the war in North Africa. The cat and mouse game between the spy and the British major  has VERY high stakes (even though we actually know the outcome of the war before we even start the book.)

This is probably something to fix in the book first and then revise the query. 

And you might consider this: the idea that killing terrorists in horrific ways will dissuade them from doing anything defies logic. Uncertainty is what stops people in their tracks. The unknown. 

If you join TerroristsAreUs only to find that your friends are dropping dead for no apparent reason, in the most mundane of places, that's terrifying. Terrorists are people, not cardboard cutouts. I'm perfectly willing to risk a terrible death to defend my country. The uncertainty though of lots of unexplained deaths...frankly I'd be wondering if that was the hand of God saying "yea, you're on the wrong path, there bucko."

That's just something to think about. This is your book, and you should write the one you want. 


Revision #1

Sandra Lee Johnson is on the run.
From, of all people, the CIA.
Which, she thinks, is patently unfair. Since Sandra is working for a DIA contractor, they’re all on the same side, right?
I mean, come on. Is it her fault that Muhammad al-Abtari, her terrorist target, turned out to be a highly placed CIA asset? Or that the CIA thinks she was in Dubai to remove him from the board, even if she was?
It’s not as if she knew he was a double agent and went after him anyway. So why are they so upset?
Sure, her organization’s methods might seem a little extreme. Torture and dismemberment are illegal, blah blah blah.
Tell that to the terrorists.
The CIA might also be pissed because, about a month ago, one of her company’s teams swapped the heads of al-Abtari’s brother and sister-in-law. It messed up that hotel room in Santorini, too, but isn’t that what cleaners are for?
Again, who knew? Mistakes happen. No intelligence is perfect.
Some ball-less Justice Department wimp would no doubt love to get his hands on her organization. But for that to happen, those CIA agents first have to get their hands on her.
She’s asking herself how far she should go to protect her organization. She doesn’t really want to kill her own countrymen.
Then again, they brought this on themselves. A little inter-agency cooperation wouldn’t have hurt, would it?
There’s not much time left. Sandra needs to make a decision.
She just hopes it won’t be her last.

This is a mess. You're trying to be funny. Stop. I'm your EXACT audience for a thriller query and I can tell you that this flippant tone does not help you. Thrillers aren't flippant. They can be dark, sardonic and sarcastic, but they can't be flippant.

Also, this is a big block o'text, and thus it is close to unreadable on my screen. Almost every line here should have a line of white space after it.

As I see it you've got two problems: your query's tone reflects the book, and thus even if you polish up the query you're going to have a hard time with the book because of the tone, OR your query is not like your book, and that means all you need to do is quit trying to be clever, and just right a straightforward query that tells me who the main character is and what her choices are and what's at stake with those choices.

Have confidence that your story will be interesting in and of itself.

Revise, resend.


Dear Query Shark:

Most people, when offered a new job, find the decision process fairly straightforward. Since Sandra Lee Johnson’s profession is killing people, her decision process is understandably more complex.
If this is a query for a book about whether to take a job, you've set the stakes pretty low, even if the job is assassin.

Approached by her former ex-Army lover, Sandra is given the opportunity to kill terrorists for her country. And not just kill them, but to do so in ways that are so horrific they will dissuade the others from continuing with their radical ways. 

Illegal? Perhaps.  Effective? Probably.  Fun? Hell, yeah!

I'm as much in favor of kick ass, violent thrillers as the next shark, but I'm having a hard time with "fun."  This is one of those things that can work well in a book where you have time to meet the characters and appreciate their dark humor, or coping mechanisms. In a query, this a pretty brutal thing to read.

Sandra has a more immediate concern, however: survival. Someone now knows that she’s an assassin for hire.  Her primary objective is to find a way to protect herself.
Is she? I thought she'd been offered the job and was mulling it over (see paragraph one)

The non-governmental organization (NGO) who wants to hire her considers her to be the perfect candidate, largely because she can kill without remorse. Sociopathic tendencies are considered a positive when your job is to inflict terror. 
This is set up, and we're five paragraphs in to the query. Either this goes earlier, or comes out.

The NGO's leader has told her that, regardless of her decision, her secret is safe. Sandra can’t afford to believe them, as much as she’d like to, even though she considers the job perfect for her.

Someone knows she's an assassin? that's what's at stake?

To protect herself, she sets up a computer file outlining what she knows about the NGO. She then contacts an old friend, US Representative Pamela Calvert. Sandra knows that her former pal, who is just as callous as she is, owes her a favor.

Sandra explains her dilemma in vague and general terms. She then asks for her friend’s help, telling her she’ll send her the file if the NGO exposes her, or through a failsafe release process should they decide to remove their risk by killing her.

Sandra’s congressional friend agrees in principle with the NGO’s goals. She also realizes that exposing the organization could provide her with much-needed positive publicity for her upcoming Senate run. Accordingly, Representative Calvert sets out to find proof of the organization’s existence, uncaring of what such exposure would mean to Sandra.

Sandra would love nothing more than to take the torture game back to the terrorists. At the same time, her primary goal of self-protection may have unfortunate consequences.

If Sandra doesn’t play her balancing act perfectly, she may end up destroying both her organization and herself. Then again, as one of Sandra’s new colleagues puts it: how can you have any fun without a little risk?

Sandra couldn’t agree more. Then again, it all depends on how you define the word ‘fun.’ 
Shock Force is a 92,000 word International thriller. Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is a mess. You've got way too much focus on a question that doesn't matter: will she take the job. The book doesn't work unless she does take the job, so leave all that stuff out of the query.  Remember the Raymond Chandler quotes about kill your darlings. Here's where you see that in action.

Focus on what matters: Sandra's ugly job gets her killed unless…what? If she keeps the job a secret what good thing happens? What bad thing also happens?  What's her skin in the game so to speak?


I know you have told us not to use sentences that begin with 'but,' 'however' or 'so.' However (hee hee), the above query seems to lend itself to the use of those words.  Take the first paragraph, for example. It would seem to have more punch if it were written thusly: "Most people, when offered a new job, find the decision process fairly straightforward. But since Sandra Lee Johnson’s profession is killing people, her decision process is understandably more complex."

To me, the use of 'but' in that sentence gives the reader the instantaneous impression that what follows is going to be in opposition to what precedes it. Without that word, you don't set your emotional state to where this is going, so you have to think back to what came before to make complete sense of those two sentences. In other words, it doesn't seem to flow as well. When you read, "Since Sandra Lee Johson's . . .", you don't already know if her decision process is going to be straightforward or not, until you reach the end. It seems to be slighty more confusing without using that 'but.'

I could use the 'but' in a compound sentence, but then I'd violate your 'keep sentences short' rule.  So, my question: looking at the two competing first paragraphs, which one seems to give a better impression and flow? And could you also expand on why we shouldn't start a query sentence with those banned words?

You're worrying about the wrong thing here. The query doesn't work right now. You need to revise substantially.

And using but, how, so, or and effectively is perfectly acceptable in a query. All too often they're used as  filler. The way to make sure you're NOT using them as filler is to see if a sentence is stronger without them.  In your case, the words aren't filler.

I don't read queries with a check list of rules or watching for banned words (well, ok, fiction novel is the exception there)  I read them to find good stories I'll want to represent.  Right now you're not telling me about that story.

Revise, resend.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

#268-revised 1x

Revision #1

Dear Query Shark:

Michael is a problem solver – a 12-year-old brainiac who finds creative solutions where when others throw up their hands. But keeping him and his sisters under the State’s radar – even keeping them alive? This time, he just might be in over his head.

One of those tricky little mistakes that you catch only when you think about each word in a sentence. It's when (not where) because Michael finds solutions when other people give up, not where other people give up. See the difference?

Orphaned and determined not to be parceled out to foster families, Michael, Cassandra (16), and Kendra (5) disguise themselves and run away. The ‘missing children’ hide out, first, in a rustic campground - where all that stands between them and starvation is Michael’s ingenuity (Just don’t ask him what’s for dinner!) - and then in a vacant house where they try to ‘look normal,’ to hide in plain sight. But, normal people form relationships. And relationships are dangerous when you’re a fugitive. The Kindergarten teacher sees through Kendra’s boy disguise. The nice old lady Michael does chores for is oddly uninterested in his parents. And Cassandra’s police cadet boyfriend is asking way too many questions.

The rhythm of that second sentence improves if you leave out "to look normal." Again, that's something you'll catch only if you read the query out loud. 

These are all things you only catch after multiple revisions. It's WHY you make sure you do multiple revisions. 

Is there any chance the children can pull this off until Cassandra is old enough to be their legal guardian? Dare they trust that there might be another way to remain a family?

Middle Grade readers who loved Jack’s adventure and resourcefulness in Small Like an Elephant will enjoy BACKDOOR KIDS.

I have a BS in Journalism from the (University.) As a former freelance magazine journalist, I appreciate good editing and understand the importance of deadlines. BACKDOOR KIDS is my first novel and complete at 43,000 words.

We don't really call books for middle grade readers novels. I think it's safe to say this is your first book, or your first book for middle grade readers. (A chapter book has a lot of illustrations, and while this may become that, it isn't now.)

Leave out all that stuff about good editing and deadlines. I just assume you are all of those things until proven wrong. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

This is so much better than the first version! Congrats on some really hard work.

Revise, resend.

Dear Query Shark,

The orphaned Robinson children are in deep cow dung - Children's Services is set to parcel them out to foster families.  Except for Cassandra, 16; it's hard to find foster families for teenagers. She’s likely to end up in a juvenile facility.  

 This is a good opening for a query. Right away I have a sense of what's at stake: the kids being separated. Moreover I care about this because the idea of a regular 16 year old kid being put in a juvenile facility is just awful. I'm enticed to read on to find out what happens next. This is EXACTLY what you want in a query.

Cassandra will do anything to keep her family together.  Destroy her hair.  Lie. Get a job. Even eat nasty crustaceans and commit a crime (break into a house).  It’s a real pain to be in charge.  Things get extra complicated when she befriends a young police cadet with a good reason for being suspicious.  Maybe dating him isn't such a good idea.

And then splat. What does "destroy her hair" mean? Cut it and dye it mouse brown for a job? And "nasty crustaceans"? Like lobster?  

Then you say commit a crime (break into a house)--you only need ONE of those phrases, two is awkward. 

And then comes the romantic entanglement.  Except what's he suspicious of? Her loathing for lobster?

What you're NOT doing here is moving the story along. You've got a good set up in the first paragraph. How is Cassandra holding off Children's Services? Be specific.

12 year old Odd Duck Michael is observant and reads everything.  He also has a better than average memory.  He can build a shelter and safely feed his sisters worms and wild plants.  He’s why the children survive the campground.  Then his family holes up in a small town and, even before school starts, he’s more popular than he ever was at his old school.  The guys even want him on their football team.  Him, Michael the brainiac!  He doesn't want to leave his new life in Applegate. But staying requires remaining undercover in plain sight.  Easier said than done.

And if you could splat more you have just done it here. What campground? Are the children on the run? None of that is clear here. Not Clear is a BAD thing in a query.

Little Kendra is living her fantasy – she gets to be a boy.  But it isn't any fun to be hungry.  And she’s hungry enough to eat a bear.  Well, maybe not Bear, the dog.  But hungry enough to eat whatever Michael cooks on his tin can pan.  (As long as it isn't peas!)  The problem is, Kendra’s disguise is slipping. Her soon-to-be kindergarten teacher isn't fooled for a minute.  And Michael went and called Kendra ‘her’ in front of the old woman down the street. How much longer before all of their secrets get out?

What secret?  You've got a nice set up in paragraph one, but you've failed to tell us what the children are doing. Thus all this other stuff is confusing.

You've sacrificed clarity for telling us about the three characters. Don't do that. Tell us about the story, more specifically the plot.

Who is the antagonist? I'm assuming Children's Services but that's not clear here. I don't think Children's Services tracks kids down like bounty hunters, so we'll need something that gives some urgency to the plot.

Tweens who daydreamed in younger years of being as independent as The Boxcar Children will enjoy  BACKDOOR KIDS, complete at 43,000 words.

The Boxcar Children is a really difficult comp title because 1. The first one was published in 1924 and 2. It's gone on to become a classic.

Comp titles are generally used to show who the audience is for a book which means using a classic is statistically improbable.  You want book/s that are new, generally acquired within the last two years or so.

I have a BS in Journalism from the [University]  As a former freelance magazine journalist, I appreciate good editing and understand the importance of deadlines.  BACKDOOR KIDS is my first novel. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Question:  In QS critique #199-FTW, a query for a multi-perspective novel, you praised the writer for her restraint in not presenting each party’s perspective in her query.  I just violated that concept.  Do I need to rethink this? 

What you've given us here is essentially three versions of the same perspective: that of the kids. QS #199 had viewpoints from three different perspectives: the kidnapper, the kidnap victim, and the people left behind.   If you want to do three perspectives here you'd need the kids (whichever kid you chose), the people looking for them (Children's Services) and maybe the teacher.  

There's no way to do that in 43K words. There just isn't.  Also, if  you're writing for middle grade, I'm not sure you'd want to.

Your problem here is that the query doesn't work, not the number of perspectives. You've got one: 3rd person omniscient.  What you need now is a query that is a lot more specific and plot-centric.

Revise, resend.


Sunday, December 7, 2014


Dear Query Shark,

Thirteen-year-old Stevie Blake shoots lightning at 1.21 gigawatts per bolt. He supercharges iPhones into iDuds just by touching them. He even flies. (Landing is a whole different story.)

But by the end of summer, he won’t exist.

His dad’s former sidekick, Artimus Smiles, has stolen a time machine and is using it to alter history. Suddenly, the good people of Summer Springs can’t remember a time when Smiles wasn’t the richest and most powerful Remarkable around, and they’re forgetting Stevie.

This is a weak closing line to a paragraph. Either end it on "most powerful  Remarkable around" or make "they're forgetting Stevie" a separate sentence (you can add something to that sentence for punch like "what's worse"etc.)

In the name of the greater good, Stevie breaks a few of the Superhero Handbook ™ rules to find out what Smiles is up to. Unfortunately, breaking-and-entering isn’t legal, not even when spying on a super villain wanna-be. Neither is stealing a Memory Serum so that Stevie’s cousins will remember him. But soon Stevie uncovers a connection between his dad’s past and Smiles’ present. A sinister connection, straight from a comic book, that could zap Stevie’s shot at a future.

But time is against Stevie, literally. His powers are weakening, he’s fading from pictures, and he could disappear any day. He must travel in time, Marty McFly style, and stop Smiles from erasing him from existence, even if it means altering history himself.

THE REMARKABLE STEVIE BLAKE AND THE TIME TRAVELER is a 68,000 word upper middle grade novel with series potential. It will appeal to fans of Matthew Cody’s Powerless and John David Anderson’s Sidekicked. I hold a BFA in Creative Writing, but unfortunately I possess no superpowers.

(I think your superpower might be writing query letters.)

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Question: I've seen several agents say they're searching for works about people of color and/or by people of color. My MC is a person of color, and I'm a person of color. Should this be conveyed somehow during the querying process?

Clearly, the story stands on its own without mention of race or ethnicity, but you do want to convey that to the agent reading the query because you're right: we DO want those books.  This is a piece of information NOT related to the story, so you'll put it at the close, the same place you'd put your writing credits.

For example: Recently I've seen several agents say they're searching for works about people of color and/or by people of color. My MC is a person of color, and I'm a person of color. I hold a BFA in Creative Writing, but unfortunately I possess no superpowers. 

This is an absolutely splendid query and I think with a few minor tweaks it's ready to go.

Good luck on the query process (and let us know how it works out!)

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Dear Query Shark,

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

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


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

This is a nice set up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your time and consideration.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 25, 2014

#264-revised once

Comments are now closed on this post


Dear Query Shark,

Fia Colibri, 26, wants two things: to hide from her father and to recreate herself. Neither is possible after when her car breaks down and she’s stranded in East Ridge, North Dakota, a blip of a town near the Canadian border.

I yammer a lot about looking at every single word to make sure it's the right word in the right place.  Here I've changed one word. It seems like a small thing but when keeps us in the moment AND guides the reader to think "why is that not possible now? What happens next?" It's just a matter of style. Both words are grammatically correct. One word though is better than the other. 

Raised in Cirque du Soleil and trained as an aerialist, Fia was just 12 years old when her father forced her to steal jewelry for him. After he abandoned her at a heist on her 17th birthday, she served eight years in prison as an adult. He’s been chasing her for more than a year now, determined to get his cut of the $10 million in diamonds she cached before her arrest.

This paragraph is SO MUCH BETTER than the one you have at the start.  It has tension. It has what's at stake. It sets up the plot.  If you flip the order of these two paragraphs, you've got a MUCH better query.

But it’s hard work staying hidden. Fia’s lonely, tired of moving all the time, and bored. Worse, she’s stuck in a podunk town. After meeting Aiden, a lawyer who’s searching for his missing sister Kylie, she decides that spending a few days helping this charming man is worth the risk of being found. After all, it’s North Dakota, right? Her father couldn’t possibly find her here. Surely she can find Kylie before her car’s repaired.

Fia and Aiden track Kylie to a nearby Cold War radar station that’s been converted into a private Russian orphanage. When they investigate, they’re surprised at every juncture by duplicitous townsfolk, belligerent thugs, and a corrupt police force. As they plumb the secrets of the orphanage, they uncover a heartbreaking scheme—and Fia’s new fear isn’t that her father will find her, it’s that she won’t survive.

And you lose me with "private Russian orphanage." As far as I know, North Dakota is in the United States. True, they're uncomfortably close to that looming giant Canadia, but I think they're still one of us.

You don't have a lot of room to explain things in a query. Sometimes the better part of valor is leaving out detail.  If I'm intrigued enough to read the full, there's time enough to set up how the hell you have a Russian orphanage in the United States. (What the hell do they do? Import them?)

UNDER THE RADAR is an adult action thriller complete at 86,000 words. I’ve worked as a book designer, editor, and website manager in the nonfiction trade publishing arena and am currently writing full time.

action thriller is redundant. It's just a thriller.

Thanks very much for your time and consideration.



I’ve received a request for a full manuscript for UNDER THE RADAR from a publisher. If the stars align and they offer a contract, do you think it’s wise to sign with them without agent representation? I’ve done some due diligence--they’re a good fit for my book and so far I can’t find any red flags.

Answer: I'm an agent. I think it's insane to do a deal without an agent however, I'm not untethered from reality (right now) and realize that not all authors secure representation before submitting books and receiving offers.

If you do not have an agent and you receive an offer, you get a publishing attorney or a contract review specialist to go over your contract before you sign. You do NOT sign the contract they give you thinking "oh gosh, if I don't, they'll withdraw the offer." Publishers expect to negotiate terms of a publishing deal.

Dear Query Shark,

I would be grateful if you’d consider representing UNDER THE RADAR, an adult action thriller complete at 86,000 words.

I know you think it's polite to start off with "I'd be grateful" but honestly, you don't need it here. Are you grateful if your real estate agent answers her phone?  Same thing. You're proposing we enter in to a business relationship. Just tell me what your book is about. Save the grateful for when I sell the book for wheelbarrows of cash.

And leave the housekeeping stuff like word count and category till the end.
A former Cirque du Soleil aerialist and ex-con who’s hiding from her father is drawn into the perilous world of human trafficking when she agrees to investigate the disappearance of a journalist in rural North Dakota.

 And here's where I stop reading. I can hear your screams of anguish when I say this but it's true. I don't want to read about human trafficking for entertainment. I see news reports, I hear fund raising appeals, it's an awful awful topic.

And here's the kicker: you could avoid that instant rejection by leaving out this worse-than-useless, actually detrimental, LOGLINE!   I've railed against loglines for years. They're an  import from the film business and they have no place in a good query.  A good query entices me to read on because it engages me with the STORY. A logline is all about concept.  Useful if that's what you're pitching, but that's not the case here.

Fia Colibri, 26, wants two things: to hide from her father and to recreate herself. Neither is possible after her car breaks down in East Ridge, North Dakota, a blip of a town near the Canadian border.

If you'd started here, I would have kept reading. When you start with your main character, not a news headline, you've increased your chances I'll keep reading. 

While stranded, she meets Aiden, a lawyer who’s looking for his missing sister Kylie, and agrees to help him with his search. Her acrobatic skills—and prison savvy—are just what he needs. When they investigate a nearby Cold War radar station that’s been converted into an orphanage, they become immersed in the dangerous world of the Russian bratva and discover that the orphanage is a front for child porn, prostitution, and slave trading. Kylie is being held prisoner there, but she won't leave until she’s amassed evidence to expose the Russians.

Why does Fia agree to help Aiden? You've told us she wants to hide from her father and recreate herself. How does helping Aiden do that? And what's at stake for her? If she helps Aiden, what will she lose? 

There's a logical inconsistency between "Kylie is being held prisoner" and "she won't leave."  Being held prisoner means she doesn't get to leave even if she accumulates enough evidence of anything.

Frustrated by secretive townsfolk, belligerent thugs, and a corrupt police force, Fia and Aiden ultimately save the children, rescue Kylie, and evade her father.

Never Ever EVER give away the ending in a query. Your job in a query is to entice me to read on. Now that I know what happens, why would I read the book? And in revealing the end of the book so hurridley you've taken all the verve out of the story. That's absolutely fatal in a query.

Get the plot and stakes on the page, and that's ALL.

I’ve worked as a book designer, editor, and website manager in the nonfiction trade publishing arena and am currently writing full time.

Thanks very much for your time and consideration.

Revise, resend.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

#263-revised once

Revision #1
Dear Query Shark:

Valadae Copperstone helps breed snakes and spiders just to keep food on the table for her family. When a mysterious contract arrives promising substantial payment for her skills, it’s her opportunity to escape this minimum wage existence. The ink barely dries on the dotted line before Valadae realizes she’s been deceived. The contract has morphed into her worse nightmare; an enlistment agreement from the United States of Alacove Army.

That first sentence makes it sound as though they eat snakes and spiders. If that's the case, Army chow doesn't look quite so bad, does it?

This is a vast improvement over your initial effort.

Now bound to fulfill an eight-year term, Valadae is thrown into a boot camp full of drill instructing warlocks and warwitches threatening to shove a combat boot up her ass. However, none of the instructors are tougher on Valadae then than Warwitch Beaning, and it’s certainly not because she sees any potential in Valadae.

Uh oh, the dreaded then/than mistake.  I've shouted from rooftops about how important it is to have every word right in your query.  Right after really bad writing, this kind of mistake is one of the main reasons I elect to NOT request a manuscript that might be interesting. If I see it here, I know I'll see it in the manuscript, and moreover I know that you DIDN'T see it which means I'll be copy editing your work forever.

Suddenly soldiers start falling ill with an untraceable sickness and dying in the midst of training. When Valadae develops similar symptoms, all fingers point to Beaning after Valadae finds a journal with Beaning and the dead soldiers’ names written inside.

Sickness or illness isn't "untraceable" it's unknown. Or untreatable.

And you don't need all the words in that sentence. Consider:  Suddenly soldiers start falling ill with an untraceable sickness and dying in the midst of training. 

or this: Suddenly soldiers start falling ill with an untraceable sickness and dying in the midst of training.

See the difference?

This means you're not paring down enough. You don't have a good sense of rhythm yet for what makes good writing.  This is just a function of practice. Absolutely no one has that at the start of their career. It is the stuff of which trunk novels are made.  After a million words of practice (the Stephen King benchmark) you'll see it when you revise. NOT when you write your first draft, but when you go back through it the second, third and tenth time.

With each turned page, Valadae discovers details of an ancient artifact called the Millicor, and its host being the heart of an entire country.

 This sentence makes no sense. For starters, you can leave out "with each turned page" because we know from the preceding paragraph she's got her mitts on a journal of some kind.

"It's host being the heart of an entire country"--I don't know what you mean here but I'm going to guess that the artifact is important.

Beaning’s scheming to auction the Millicor to any enemy insurgent with the highest bid. If things weren’t bad enough, Valadae learns in order to obtain the Millicor, the host’s must die. She needs to identify the host before Beaning or Alacove will face the biggest death toll in history.

You've left out what's at stake for Valadae personally. Every protagonist must have skin in the game. "People will die" is too abstract to qualify. What bad thing will happen to her if she succeeds? What must she sacrifice to succeed.

TIN YEAR, a YA Military/Fantasy, is complete at 90,000 words.

I am serving my eighth year in the United States Army Reserve. I drew on my beginning experiences with Echo Company 113th of Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in the writing of this book.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

 I think you're querying too soon. Even if you polish up your query, your novel is going to have these same errors.  These errors indicate you need more practice. That's not some kind of character flaw, every single writer has a story about querying too soon.  (I bet some of the comments will elicit those)  The trick is to figure it out as soon as you can and get back to work writing.

By writing, I don't mean get back to work on this novel.  One of the best ways to improve your writing is by working in short forms.  Flash fiction contests are good. So are book reviews for blogs. So are short stories.  Hell, letters home to Mom and Dad are good practice. Journal writing that you REVISE is good practice. Just writing in a journal is ok, but going back over what you've written and revising and improving it is where you'll really make progress.

Original Query
Dear Query Shark:

Valadae Copperstone’s agenda didn’t include becoming a statistic in the Army’s portfolio of causalities. Her main focus is providing a decent living for her family, and working any odd end job available. She can’t very well do that if she’s serving on the frontlines. When a mysterious contract arrives promising substantial payment for her work skills, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. The ink barely dries on her new hopes for a better life before Valadae realizes she’s been deceived. The contract rearranges into her worse nightmare; an enlistment agreement from the United States of Alacove Army.

Your first sentence robs the entire paragraph of tension.  It does that because it tells us what happens FIRST, not deliver it as the punchline to the paragraph. What you've got here is the first draft. When you revise, you go back through the paragraph and take out all the things that undercut the tension or reveal things too soon. You won't see this when you write it, you'll ONLY see it when you revise.

You'll want to check your novel for this too. This is one of the things I see a lot in early novelists: they put sentences in the wrong order. One too many lessons about "topic sentences" from your fourth grade teacher stuck in your brain. Novel writing and expository writing are VERY different creatures paragraph wise.

Now bound to fulfill an eight-year term, Valadae is thrown into a boot camp full of screaming warlocks and warwitches threatening to shove a combat boot up her ass. However, none of the instructors are harder on Valadae then Warwitch Beaning, and it’s certainly not because she sees any potential in Valadae. Soldiers are suddenly falling ill to an untraceable sickness and dying in the midst of training. When Valadae develops similar symptoms, she just knows that Beaning is the cause.

Are the warlocks and warwitches the instructors? That's not clear. I thought at first that they were Valadae's fellow boots.

There's no connection between Warwitch Beaning seeing no potential in Valadae, and soldiers falling ill. That means they do NOT belong in the same paragraph unless you link them.

Consider this revision with that in mind:

Now bound to fulfill an eight-year term, Valadae is thrown into a boot camp full of screaming warlocks and warwitches instructors threatening  to shove a combat boot up her ass. However, none of the instructors are harder on Valadae then Warwitch Beaning, and it’s certainly not because she sees any potential in Valadae. 

Suddenly soldiers are start falling ill to with an untraceable sickness and dying in the midst of training. When Valadae develops similar symptoms, she just knows that Beaning is the cause.

"Just knows" drives me crazy. I think of it as sloppy writing because you haven't got a reason, it's just "she knows." Like deus ex machina, it's a device to clean things up without having to explain anything.  Even if you use "she suspects" you're better off than with "she just knows."

Again, this is something you'll see only when you revise. Revising isn't copy editing. It's not checking for spelling errors. Revising is making sure all the sentences flow in logical order,  the arc of the paragraph is correct, your style and rhythm are right.  If you're not moving sentences, and paring out words and changing words while you're revising, you're not doing it right. 

As Valadae slowly makes the connections, (what connections?) a conspiracy is uncovered. A myth surfaces surrounding an ancient artifact called the Millicor, said to hold the heart of an entire country. Anyone bearing a surname similar to Copperstone could lead towards the right country. It has to be what Beaning is after. The longer Valadae takes to prove it, the faster she risks meeting the same fate as her sick comrades and never getting back home to her family.

You're over explaining something we don't need to know. Pare down. The only thing we need to know in a query is what Valadae's choices are and what's at stake. She's going to choose to confront/kill/quit and if she succeeds X happens and if she fails Y happens. But X also means Z bad thing could happen too.

Get the stakes, not just the set up on the page.

TIN YEAR, a suspenseful YA Military/Fantasy, is complete at 90,000 words.
I am serving my eighth year in the United States Army Reserve. I drew on my beginning experiences with Echo Company 113th of Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in the writing of this book.

You don't call your own book suspenseful. Of course, you want it to be, and you're writing so it will be, but that's a designation someone ELSE needs to give it. 

I'm usually not keen on including bio lines but this one works because it relates directly to the book you're writing.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Revise, resend.

Question 1): When an agent requests a partial or full of your MS, are writers allowed to request time (short time frame of course) to give their manuscript a final once over before emailing it? Or does an agent expect writers to be so extremely confident in their work that they’ll send it anyway, even with the possibility of the agent finding an error or two?

You should be prepared to send your manuscript to an agent the instant the request comes in.  The time for that once over is between sending the query and getting the request for the full.  

Of course, in the real world, there's no way I'm going to talk you nit-picky writers (and don't think I don't value that quality!) out of doing a once-over.  The trick is to do it in less than 24 hours.  Don't write back saying "hold on, I want to go over it one more time" just DO IT, and then send promptly.

Question 2): I remember you explaining in several posts (actually more than several) that shorter sentences are always better. If a query comes off as too simplistic, couldn’t that  accidentally advertise the writer’s style as being unworthy of representation?

I'm not sure what unworthy of representation is but it sounds bad, and I don't really like using the word worthy. Suitable for publication, or publishable are the standards I use.

And by shorter sentences, what I mean is sentences that don't go on too long. Nice concrete standard there, no? 

You're supposing that short sentences sound simplistic. I assure you they don't. Short sentences have a punch and vigor their lengthier comrades lack. That said, style and rhythm are key. Short and long are better than one or the other.

#262-Revised 3x

Version #3

Dear Query Shark:

Growing up on Long Island, Pru watched her mother pick a parade of the worst men available, from her absentee dad to her lecherous stepdad. Young Pru dreamed of being swept off her feet by the perfect guy, raising children, and living happily ever after.

When she married Carl over her mother's objection, she convinced herself she did not share her mother's bad luck in men. Whenever anything went wrong, she fixed it and started the next day with a smile. She was as good at hiding Carl's faults as he was at pointing out hers. As she approached her 45th birthday however, Prudence Aldrich was starting to believe bad luck in men was, in fact, an inherited trait.

I was ready to mark all this out as back story, but I think you're right, we do need to know that Pru hoped for something other than what her mom had, and didn't get it.

She had grown to dread seeing Carl's car in the driveway or seeing his name appear when her phone rang. After twenty loveless years, waking up with a smile every day simply isn't cutting it. Even shopping and cheating can no longer fill the void left by Carl's passive aggressive demeanor. Blaming herself, Pru checks into Serenity Hills, hoping to save her marriage.

If Carl is such a louse, why did she marry him?

What she learns there changes everything. Other patients find Pru to be a source of strength. She sees Carl's true colors. Most of all, she finally sees a future filled with love, with or without Carl, and with or without luck.

We have no sense of what's at stake for Pru. There has to be some reason she doesn't just ditch Carl, and decamp for greener pastures.  What bad thing will happen if she wakens to new-found self respect? What worse thing will happen if she doesn't?

Without choices, or stakes, there's no compelling reason to read the book, it's just a series of events.

If you're having a hard time figuring out what's at stake, the most likely answer is nothing is.  

One of the ways to fix that is to take your ten favorite women's fiction novels and re-read them with your writer eye. Look for what's at stake in those novels, and how the writer layers that in to the story.  Then do that. You learn by watching the people who know how to do stuff.  It's how we all learn.

A DRESS THE COLOR OF THE SKY (99,000 words) is women's fiction. This is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

 Revise, resend.


Revision #2

Dear Query Shark,

Prudence wants her mom happy. She cleans the house and does the laundry but driving the car is another story. After all, she's only five.

This is a great line, except that "driving the car" doesn't relate to anything that happens further on in the query. 

Her stepdad Richard makes her do gross things with his pants down. She doesn't tell her mom because that wouldn't make her happy. Pru pretends she is someone else when bad things happen. Richard says Pru is too damned pretty and that's why he makes her do stuff she can't talk about. Richard beats her for holding her fork wrong or not filling the ice trays. Pru thinks that's better than spending a moment alone with his greasy grimy gopher guts.

Less is more on this kind of thing. I know I said be specific in that last revision, but there's a point at which too much specificity is just off-putting. I can't stand this kind of story (abuse is on my list of auto-rejects) so my tolerance is probably a lot lower than agents who DO consider this, but even with that, less is more.

Pru's marriage to Carl doesn't break her. She has survived worse things than his psychological torture. But it does take a toll. Pru's shell cracks when her infidelity becomes sex for cash. The possibility of losing Carl, and more importantly, her son scares the bejesus out of her. Not sure where to turn, Pru checks herself into rehab.

Rehab for what? I don't think this lady needs rehab. I think she needs a firearm. (That's just me, I know) But what's she in rehab for? Sex addiction? She's not addicted to sex, she's a victim of abuse. I'm pretty sure there's a difference here.

You've gone from five to (I hope at least) twenty-five here. That's a big leap in time for a query letter. Generally you want to start a query where the precipitating incident occurs. I'm going to guess it's when Prudence marries Carl and thinks she's getting out of an awful situation, only to find she isn't. Starting at that point solves the problem of all that abuse in the first paragraph--you can leave it out. 

Pru is shocked when other patients say her smile lights up a room. That's not possible when you think you're worse than dog doo stuck in a shoe. Pru's beautiful monkey brain kicks into overload. Should she leave Carl? Can she say her first authentic no?

"Beautiful monkey brain" is an odd pairing of words. Like "jumbo shrimp" or "non-fiction novel" it seems oxymoronic. It doesn't illuminate anything about Prudence to me, so you might think about another phrase.

A DRESS THE COLOR OF THE SKY (99,000 words) is commercial fiction. This is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


this still doesn't have any plot on the page and has such a jarring first paragraph that I don't think too many readers will keep reading.

Revise. Resend.

Revision #1
Dear Query Shark,

Prudence Aldrich had it all when she was born in the early 1960's in Los Angeles: shabby genteel yet glamorous parents, a rustic yet refined suburban upbringing, even a grandmother right out of a Pepperidge Farm commercial.

It all falls apart with a bi-coastal divorce, a new home and new friends. But it is her step family she cannot abide: self-centered, abusive, perverse. None of her kids books taught her how to handle those nightmares. Before long her sweet demeanor grows a thicker skin, and she takes the world one comer at a time.

This is too abstract to be interesting.  You have to tell us what happens here. Be specific. I don't mean a laundry list but "self-centered, abusive, perverse' isn't as interesting as "her new stepfather walks around naked with a gun and threatens to shoot her mom if she doesn't do what he asks."  See the difference?

Pru's emotional state unravels, and before long a blur of bars, men and one-night stands lands her in an abusive marriage with a sullen husband. Clearly, the time has come to change. But what are her options? A complete transformation is called-for: Rehab.

You're skipping over the ONE point that we need to see: the point where she decides things have to change. That's actually the start of the second act (if a book were  three-act play.) We have to see it on the page for sure, and it helps to see it in a query.

But I'm puzzled by where the book starts? How much page time is devoted to Pru's fall from her happy times in LA?  If it's more than about 60 pages, you need to cut back here in the query on the stuff that happens later.  The query should focus on where things change for the protagonist. What choice does she have to make? Or in this case what choice is made for her? And what's at stake? What does she have to sacrifice to get what she wants?

A DRESS THE COLOR OF THE SKY is a story that many contemporary women can relate to: personal habits and relationships flipped out of control, "back-burnered" dreams no one else cares about, and a total lack of emotional support.

This broad generalization about audience appeal is a red-flag to agents and editors. Leave it OUT. Tell us what the story is about.  That's it.

And what back -burnered dreams? There's no mention of that at all up to now.

Yet it is through her rehab for whatever "sex addiction" is that her butterfly emerges from its chrysalis. This soul-searching process, one she would have scoffed at not long ago, with its group therapy sessions, individual counseling, art therapy, public confessions and chastisement, radically changes her view of herself and the world. No one is "cured" of trauma in the final sense, but Prudence is on her way. On her way to freedom.

You don't give away the entire plot or the complete arc of character development in the query. You focus on the beginning of the book.

A DRESS THE COLOR OF THE SKY (99,000 words) is commercial fiction. This is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


The central problem here, other than it's a mess, is that you've given us nothing to empathize with for Pru.  She needs to catch and hold our interest. She doesn't need to be likable, but she must be interesting.  Really stand back from your narrative and ask yourself if Pru herself can hold our interest for 300 pages.

If you're not sure, or you don't trust your instinct, give it to a friend to read. Don't ask her what she thinks of the book (your friends will lie through their teeth about that, and god bless them for that kind of love and devotion, right?)  Ask her what she liked about Pru. Ask her what she didn't. That will help you figure out if Pru is interesting.

This is a mess, but it's a whole lot better than the initial salvo. I'm not sure you've studied the archives closely (you  haven't) but there's help there about getting the plot on the page.

And if you're having trouble getting plot on the page, you might consider if it's the book, not the query.


Dear Query Shark,

BEAUTIFUL: Prudence Aldrich is a striking, vivacious and captivating woman. But this is just a facade.

BROKEN: Pru harbors demons, secrets and shame. Sex addiction is plaguing her life. If she continues this self-destructive path - SHE COULD DIE. She can't lead a double life anymore.

SICK: Sex with random men and constant self-deprecation are Pru's only sources of comfort. Decades of abuse, neglect, rape and psychological torture turn and innocent girl into a self-loathing, desperate sex addict.

ADDICT: Prudence's self-destructive behavior has driven her to the brink. She must make critical choices in order to heal - accept her stolen childhood and leave her alcoholic husband. If she leaves Carl will she die? She feels as though she will.

ACCEPTANCE: Prudence joins the other "broken, addicted losers" in rehab as she seeks solace from her living hell. The patients tell Prudence she is brave, inspiring and that she lights up a room with her smile. Could all these people be wrong?

SET BACK: Prudence has sex with Carl while in rehab. Big mistake.

HEAL: Prudence inherits her beloved mother's poor choice in men. It's time for that family tradition to end. Prudence gains insight into her conflicted life and learns she has value, power, and most of all hope for an authentic, happy life without Carl.

A DRESS THE COLOR OF THE SKY (94,000 words) is commercial fiction. This is my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

What in the world are you thinking here?

This is one of the oddest query letter formats I've ever seen.  I was so perplexed I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out if the ALL CAPS headers spelled something out, or were some sort of subtle clue.  If they are, it's too subtle for me. 

This is a classic case of a gimmick that Does Not Work.  Don't try to be fancy.  Don't try to be unusual. Just tell me what happens at the start of the story that will make me want to read on. Right now it doesn't. Right now this is a bunch of statements about a woman I would run from as fast as I could.. She sounds like a red hot mess. Your job is to make her compelling.

Simple, elegant writing is incredibly difficult. Don't try to take shortcuts, they Do Not Work.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

#261-revised 2x FTW

Dear Query Shark,

Jumping parole might be Lemon Beasly’s only shot at saving her baby. Soon she’ll start showing, and her boss, Nathaniel, will find out she’s still pregnant. She’d let him put his hands and other extremities on her body for four long months before she figured he didn’t care one fig for her, and all those promises to help clear her prison record were a goddamn lie. Falling for a man’s tricks got her sent to the stoney lonesome in the first place, and now Nathaniel’s threatening to cook up a violation if she doesn’t get an abortion. And sShe believes him too. Powerful men always get their way. They’d send her baby to foster care to grow up motherless, just like she did.

When she Lemon meets Rayline over a Beretta Tomcat and a well-placed knee in Nathaniel’s baby makers, her first impression is the woman might be three baby steps away from flat crazy. But it doesn’t take long to figure that Rayline is better than harmless. She’s a 67-year-old woman who’s never wanted anything more than to raise a child and get some respect. Her family’s kept her in their own little prison, almost as good as Alabama’s fine penal accommodations. And there’s no way they’d let her anywhere near a baby.

Rayline just might be the person Lemon’s always needed in her life: a mother figure who won’t go away. And Lemon is Rayline’s first true friend. But can they get out before their men catch wind or the law catches on?

WOMEN LIKE US, a novel of 84,000 words, is Women’s Fiction. It was a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and for that won a Publisher’s Weekly review:. PW says, “A charming and often funny feature is the colorful (sometimes off-color) dialect ... upbeat ...  fast paced, featuring “strong and quirky female characters.”

Thank you for your time and consideration.

 The contrast between this effort and the initial query makes me weep for joy.
You're good to go here. I hope it sells for wheelbarrows full of lovely lolly.

Dear Query Shark,

Lemon Beasly needs to get the hell out of WalMart. Soon she’ll start showing, and her boss, Nathaniel, will find out she’s still carrying his baby. She became pregnant after months of giving into his manipulative demands for sex. He’d promised to help her clear her prison and parole record. Hell if that wasn’t a lie. Now he’s threatening to cook up a violation if she doesn’t get an abortion, and she believes him too. Powerful men always get their way. They’d send her baby to foster care to grow up motherless, just like she did. 

Rayline’s never wanted anything more than to raise a child and get some respect. She’s 67-years-old, but her family’s kept her under close watch her entire life, never letting her make a decision for herself. And there’s no way they’d let her anywhere near a baby. 

When the two women Lemon and Rayline meet over a Beretta Tomcat and a well-placed knee in Nathaniel’s baby makers, they find something incredible. For Lemon, the love of a mother figure who won’t go away. For Rayline, real friendship with a person who loves and admires her. But can they get out before their men catch wind of it or the law catches on?

Incredible makes it sound like they've become lovers, and while I've got no problem with lesbian fiction, I'm pretty sure that's not what you're intending to write. Find a more precise word than incredible.

WOMEN LIKE US, a novel of 84,000 words, falls into the is Women’s Fiction category. It was a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and for that won a Publisher’s Weekly review. PW called it,  “upbeat” and “fast paced,” featuring “strong and quirky female characters.” Says PW, “(1)A charming and often funny feature is the colorful (sometimes off-color) dialect.”
Put that last sentence (1) before "upbeat". It will read like this:

PW called it "a charming and often funny feature is the colorful (sometimes off-color) dialect" -- “upbeat” and “fast paced,” featuring “strong and quirky female characters.”

You don't want to use "says PW" twice in the same paragraph.
Thank you for your time and consideration.

Oh, you took off your crazy hat and wild make up and got all sober sides here. One of the best things about your first query was the voice and the word choices (diction) Some of the word choices didn't work, but with this you've swung so far into respectable that you've lost what made you colorful.

Don't be afraid to be wild and crazy. Just not out of control and insane. Learning the difference between enough and too much is an on going process.

Take another whack at this.

Question: I know that you've said you hate it when writers make ridiculous claims of self-importance, but I have this great PW review of my book that I want to include in my query. I've led with a couple quotes from PW rather than starting with the story because I thought that would be most enticing. But is that annoying? Does it sound self-aggrandizing? I got the PW review as part of a prize from a writing contest, and I'm trying to find the best way to use it to promote my book to agents. Thanks for reading!

Dear Query Shark,

Publisher’s Weekly called WOMEN LIKE US “upbeat” and “fast paced,” featuring “strong and quirky female characters.” Says PW, “A charming and often funny feature is the colorful (sometimes off-color) dialect.”

And here's where I'd stop reading if this were a regular query. When I see "PW called" I assume they reviewed the book, and that means the book was published. I don't handle books that have already been published (some agents do) but more importantly, if I thought your book was published, it's no longer your first novel, and thus less enticing. 

Lemon Beasly needs to know why Momma was murdered all those years ago. Lemon’s got the who. Trouble is, she sent that bastard to hell before he could get to the juicy part. So she’s been working the why over for ten years now. First in the state of Alabama’s fine penal accommodations, then at the Wal-Mart, where she works as a condition of her parole. Even while her boss, Mr. Smutty, is screwing her on lunch breaks.

And I've stopped taking you seriously now. Mr Smutty? Is that what Lemon calls him?  And "is screwing her" says absolutely the wrong thing if you want me to feel sympathy with Lemon. 

You're letting your "quirky" overpower the story.  Lemon is your protagonist. We need to be rooting for her. Why would she let someone named (godhelpus) Mr. Smutty into her pants? 

And you've missed the key piece of information here: the stakes. WHY does Lemon need to know why her mum was murdered? What's at stake if she never finds out?

That mess with Smutty ends the day she steals an EPT from the family planning aisle and turns the test strip blue. Smutty tells her she can lose the baby or lose her job. That would mean a parole violation for her, and foster care for her unborn child.

Now here is where we really do start to care. Now something is at stake.

Now she’s got two choices. Kill her baby and stick around in a “safe” but miserable life, or run. She teams up with Rayline, a saucy, pistol-packing, mildly retarded woman.

 I'm not sure why it's important to know Rayline is mildly retarded. It certainly makes me nervous to think of someone who is mildly retarded is also armed. And what does Lemon need from her that this is her choice of sidekick?

They set off to find Trigger, Lemon’s high school boyfriend. He might have the answers about Momma, or a clue at least. Question is, can Lemon and Rayline find him before the cops find them?

Why does Trigger (jebus, these names!) have the answer?

WOMEN LIKE US, a novel of 84,000 words, is the perfect blend of laugh-out-loud humor, heart-wrenching drama, and page-turning tension. PW agrees, “The fast-paced narrative addresses racism, murder, discrimination, loss, female friendship, and mothering. …this would most appeal to women readers or to those concerned with race and women’s status in late 20th-century America.” Thank you for your time and consideration.

The way you handle the PW review is to be very clear that the mention was  part of a prize from a writing contest.  You mention it at the END of the query. And I'm sorry to say that this PW mention isn't the ticket to the top of the query pile you think it is. I don't care what anyone else thinks, I only care what *I* think. And what *I* think is based on what you tell me about the plot and characters.

Also, this is NOT "ridiculous claims of self-importance,"--you actually earned that review the old fashioned way. You wrote the book and someone liked it.

Ridiculous claims of self-importance are: people who love God will love my book; God loves my book; all women will love my book; I'm the best writer since God. 

You've got voice and diction like nobody's business. You probably have a good novel in there. You don't have a good query yet. 

Revise and use the template that I've yammered about now for years. Give it your own individual flair.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Dear QueryShark:

Shawn knows he’s going to die on his 18th birthday.

It’s not like it’s a secret. Shawn is a saviant, born to provide a vital organ transplant to his twin brother, Adam.

When you make up a word like "saviant" it helps to use italics so the reader knows you didn't just misspell savant.

Most saviants are wards of the Church of St. Gwyneth, but not Shawn. His parents kept him and raised him alongside Adam.

Shawn loves his brother. He doesn’t mind dying. He just wants Adam to be happy.

Then Adam’s girlfriend Ashley shows up at the door.

Ashley has never heard about Shawn. She’s never even met a saviant before. She assumes the boy in front of her is Adam. And she’s never been shy with her kisses.

It’s Shawn’s first kiss. Ever. He doesn’t know how to stop it. And Adam sees what happens.

The fight is bad. So bad, Shawn tells Adam the one thing he knows will hurt the most. That his death is Adam’s fault.

When it comes down to it, Shawn’s not so sure he really is ready to die. Not anymore.

He could run away. Live a life of his own.

All he has to do is leave Adam to die instead.

INTO THE SHINING SUN (74,000 words) is young adult speculative fiction. It’s my first novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Yup, this works. This entices me to read pages. It's taut, it's got stakes, it's got me caring about ALL the characters. This is ready to go.


The first half of the story makes it look like Shawn’s going to run away and live - a more typical dystopian tale - but Shawn chooses to die, and his death marks the novel’s halfway point. The second half follows Adam’s struggle to deal with his brother’s death.

I think the query is more enticing like this, but am I lying by omission? Should I give away Shawn’s end and give a clearer picture of the whole novel instead?

Also, my novel used to be 120,000 words. Thank you for admonishing us to pare it down. I needed it.

Tricky question, and there's no right answer here. I think you leave the query as is.  I moved the question to the bottom of the post so as not to spoil the "surprise" second half for the blog readers. I think having this turn of events will be a good plot twist. 

Of course, if you get requests for fulls, and a LOT of passes that say "the second half was a let down"
you'll know you need to work on keeping the stakes for Adam high, and building tension.