Query #8 January 2015—Revised


Below is the eighth public query critique I’m offering up on the blog. This will happen once a month (as long as I get a response). I choose one query per month. If your query is not selected one month, it will be in the drawing for the next month. Please do not resubmit unless you’ve made significant edits. To enter, see the rules here. If you want a guaranteed critique (plus line edit) of your query or synopsis, private ones cost $35 each.

My comments are in blue below. To read the original query first, simply read only the black text.

Revision 1

This revision is much improved! It’s short and concise. However, it could still be more precise.

Dear __,
In an age of social injustice, I’m not in love with “in a world” or “in an age” openers, but that’s personal. However, you could make this more specific. Are we in our world? Are we in a fictional one? Is this contemporary? Be specific to set the scene immediately. where the very rich and well connected have power, money and live above the law, one brilliant young man decides to even the playing field.  He steals millions from two of the world’s richest women in order to save his childhood love’s home from going into foreclosure. Cut the cliche “even the playing field.” How does he steal it, by hacking? Because “hacktivist” is more interesting and precise than “one brilliant young man.”
I’m querying you with [Title in italics], TITLE IN ALL CAPS is a 58,142-word 58,000-word thriller. Always round to the nearest thousand. Otherwise it suggests that not a single word of your text shall be altered.
Twenty-two year old Age isn’t necessary, and MIT student is more precise. We get he’s in his 20s if he’s a student there. Age is more important in MG and YA titles, in which case “-year-old” needs to be hyphenated as well. MIT student Gawain Hagadal is on the run from private detective Mia Enou. His crime is that he tried to help his friends and neighbors—not to mention Gwyneth, the only girl he’s ever loved. HeGawain imagines himself as a modern day twenty-first-century Robin Hood, taking from the rich women who received a bailout from the Federal Reserve and giving to the poor. The poor, or the “more deserving,” or simply “his friends”? I doubt his buddies fall below poverty level. Be precise. That fantasy ended ends the minute Gwyneth tells him that she would never love him. I’d like a transition here. Something that brings it back to him being pursued. Unfortunately, Mia Enou isn’t the only private detective on his tracks.  Instead of promising justice like EnouWhile Enou promises justice for the theft, Bryden Sleeper, a man without a conscience[comma] vows to bring Gawain down dead or alive, regardless of motive (something clearer here to show that he doesn’t have a conscience, either that he doesn’t care about Gawain’s intentions, or that he will do anything for a price, and his rich employers are promising stacks of cash.) Gawain finds himself in a fight for his life“finds himself” is passive, and “a fight for his life” is a cliche. Start the sentence here: as he tries to rationalize a life without Gwyneth and comes to terms with the crime he’s committed[comma] [now say what Gawain is actually doing, not what is happening to him]. He is the last hope for his family; [em dash] his father is out of work[comma] and his older brother suffers from PTSD. Does his older brother need medication? Does his PTSD keep him from working? Will any more conflict drive him over the edge? Be specific, so we know why it’s relevant.  If he were caught, his own family will be worse off than the people he’s saved.
I am a native New Yorker who began writing in 2010 about politics, economics, and culture.  My articles have been featured in more than a dozen print and online publications. As a pundit I have been featured on multiple radio and television shows.   With a background in politics and culture and a love for thrillers, my book will be politically and culturally relevant. Much, much improved bio. Just cut the part about your book being relevant, because nobody knows what the world will be like by the time this would be published (~2 years from querying).
You’ve put a lot of work into this revision, and it’s looking great. It’s lost the weight—now it just needs a custom-fit wardrobe.



Dear –,

First impression: This isn’t a query letter, it’s an essay. The body of your query is 355 words, and your bio is 280 words. Total, I want the query about 250 words, no more than 300 when you include your bio paragraph. Most of this edit will be cutting down. Even if the writing isn’t technically bad, every single word in a query needs to earn its keep.
In an age of social injustice, where the very rich and well connected have power, money, and live above the law, one brilliant young man seeks to right society’s wrongs. This sounds like every Robin Hood knockoff of the last seven hundred years. The point of the hook is to start with what makes your novel unique, unlike any other. This isn’t a hook, it’s set up. It’s well written, but it’s not effective as a hook. For example, Arrow is a superhero Robin Hood of the twenty-first century.
This is the [title in italics], a thriller with a historical fiction backdrop. This is unnecessary, and it’s also wordy. Thirteen words down to seven:[ALL CAPS title] is a contemporary thriller set after the 2008 recession. Because this is a thriller, I expect to be thrilled by your plot. The paragraphs below are more like a thematic exploration of a literary work than an attempt to get me interested in reading your thriller.
An MIT college senior named Gawain Hagadal, who comes from very humble blue-collar origins in Lynn, Massachusetts, I know you think the name is clever, and sure it is, but it’s not important in the query. The point of your query is not to show an agent how clever you are, it’s to get someone to want to read your writing. These are the kinds of things you put on your blog for fans, like a “Fun Facts” section. Because that’s what these tidbits are—fun. A query can be fun, but it ultimately needs to be functional. sees the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis plaguing his neighbors and family, including a girl named the girl he loves, Gwyneth, with whom he’s been in love for years.  Distraught, Gawain decides to take justice in his own hands: He hacks the bank accounts of two women who received bailouts from the Federal Reserve and wires the money to the bank accounts of homeowners who are having their homes foreclosed upon. How is that justice? I feel more empathy for the women robbed than Gawain’s friends. This isn’t justice to me, unless you give me reason to empathize with Gawain’s friends and be upset that those women in particular got a bailout. The two women hire a private detective named Mia Enou, a strong woman of Italian and Japanese descent, to find the thief by any means necessary.
On its face, it’s an entertaining historical novel and thriller with a basic Robin Hood premise, dealing with complicated characters who are suffering from real world events: the recession, family members’ jobs being outsourced, military men coming back from Iraq, and the trappings of growing up in a less secure world.  Also ever-present are identifiable human relations issues regarding love, relationships, family, finding your place, and dealing with loss. Don’t editorialize. By that, I mean, stop giving a book report on your own novel and just tell the story. Make me care. Make me connect. Saying someone is lovable doesn’t make me love them. You need to show me. If you want to keep any of this, condense it and give me the story, first.
There is also an underlying philosophical question about pursuing truth at the sake of disturbing order.  The two main characters, Gawain Hagadal and Mia Enou, have their beliefs in their names.  Gawain Hagadal is an anagram for Gawain and Galahad, the two knights of King Arthur’s round table who pursued truth and were so pure of heart they were able to find the Holy Grail.  Mia Enou is an anagram for Eunomia, the Greek goddess of good moral order and governance according to good laws.  Pursing that connection – truth versus order – throughout the novel creates a clash, and it’s when they finally meet and confront each other, and their philosophies, that we get the denouement. Again, this isn’t a book report. Read “The Kinds of Queries that Work” and start again. Make Gawain empathetic. Give him a goal. Give him obstacles. Show us the conflict and the struggle. Tell us the story, don’t tell us about the story. Show me how Gawain pursues truth, and how Mia pursues justice, and how they clash.
I think you can keep some of your theme in your one-sentence hook. “[TITLE] is a contemporary thriller that pits a post-recession Robin Hood against a law-abiding PI more Veronica Mars than Sheriff of Nottingham.”
[Title] Titles need to be in ALL CAPS. Part of this is formatting, since italics don’t always transfer over. It’s also because your book is not published yet. It needs to earn those italics. is a completed at 58,142 words. Is a completed . . . what? It’s a complete contemporary thriller with a diverse cast of characters.
This is where a short bio goes, written in FIRST person. You have a very lengthy bio. The solution to that is to put that lengthy bio on your website, and include your website in your signature. If the agent wants to find out more about you, s/he will click on the link. Include a Twitter handle or other contact information as well. For the query, keep it short. How would you introduce yourself to an agent in real life? If you have a webpage with links to all of your published work, link to that as well.
Rules for the bio paragraph: Keep it short, keep it simple, keep it relevant.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
[280-word biography]
Rewrite, resubmit, and I’ll look at it again.

3 thoughts on “Query #8 January 2015—Revised

  1. Rae says:

    I’m feeling bad for the person on the receiving end of this critique. Its hard not to take things personally or feel chided with all that is wrong. Hopefully in a few days the dust will settle and they’ll feel challenged to take the suggestions and create a more effective query that sells the uniqueness of their book.

  2. Lara says:

    Writing is very personal and putting it out there makes one extremely vulnerable. Fiction has a lot of freedom, but there is a specific way of writing query letters, and this specific way is readily available on the internet. I think it’s better to be clear why this query would be rejected than leave the querier wondering. Querying is hard business, and it’s my job to prepare queries, to make them not just better than average, but in the top 1-10%.

    I hope none of my critique came across as harsh or mean. I assume that when someone volunteers to have his or her query critiqued, they want to know what’s wrong with it. With actual manuscripts, it’s easier to be encouraging. With queries, every word needs to matter. Editing queries is brutal for everyone involved.

    The good news is that if I can be the bad guy, hopefully that means fewer agents saying No.

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