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.

Query #7 December 2014


Below is the seventh 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 the black text only.

Since you specialize in XXX, I thought you might be interested in my young adult fantasy, THE BITTERBLOODS, which contains elements of Snow White and the X-Men set in the 19th Century. This should be cut, since your query doesn’t bank on this premise. When I see “in the 19th Century” I’m picturing a real, historical 19th century setting: the Victorian era. And I’m not getting the X-men vibe at all in the following paragraphs. Just call this a “steampunk fantasy.”

In Swansea Is this your fantasy setting? Is it a city or kingdom or realm? Because it’s a city in Wales., persons with magical ability are called bitterbloods, and by the Queen’s imperial decree, they are hunted and executed without exception. Is this Queen Victoria, or a fantasy queen? Since you said it was set in the 19th century, I’m picturing a historical fantasy set in Wales.

Raised as a ward of the Crown, sixteen-year-old Sarabande would rather read a math book than play croquet or learn to waltz. Her bookish habits annoy her governess(comma) and her curiosity about bitterbloods occasionally gets her in trouble, but trouble is no worse than being sent to the Tower and having to miss royal balls and operas. This is a bit confusing. I’m not sure whether she feels like that is punishment or if she enjoys it. Just be clear. For example: “…gets her in trouble, but to her, missing royal balls and operas is more of a relief than punishment.” 

However, when Sarabande discovers she has the power to heal, the Queen orders her assassination. A few things. 1) “However” doesn’t work here. This sentence doesn’t contradict the previous. Just start with “When.” 2) The Queen doesn’t order Sarabande’s assassination when Sarabande discovers her power. What specifically happens to make the Queen aware of Sarabande’s power? What did Sarabande do? An unlikely ally comes in the form of  “An unlikely ally” is a cliche, but I worry more about the unnecessarily wordiness of this. Argan Blackstone, a boy who kills with a word just as Sarabande heals with a touch. Killing with a sword isn’t a power. Sarabande has a power, so he doesn’t kill “just as” she heals. Together with an ingenious inventor and his mechanical flying horse, they must uncover the secrets behind Sarabande’s new abilities to defeat the Queen and build a future for magic in Swansea.

THE BITTERBLOODS is complete at 84,000 words with series potential.

Thank you for considering my work.

Comparing this to Snow White doesn’t help you. First, I’ve seen A LOT of fairytale retellings being pitched this past year. Second, it seems like an excuse to have a flat antagonist Queen. Why would the queen want to kill a healer? Because she has a weird law against magic that dictates everything she does (like Uther in Merlin). What does Sarabande want? To survive? If she wants to survive, why doesn’t she run away? Why is it so important to defeat the queen? Why should she build a future for magic? We know why Merlin sticks around Camelot and won’t run away—Arthur. Merlin has to use magic to keep safe someone who can never see him use it. He has to break the law to save the one who lives by it. That’s a premise full of conflict and possibility.

Having cool powers / being bookish / being an introvert isn’t enough to make me like a character. What does Sarabande want? What does her story goal have to do with her being bookish and not liking royal parties? From the first paragraph, it seems that S’s motivation is to hide. So why doesn’t she revel in exile? What changes for her?

I need to know motivation, goal, and conflict. I’m getting hints of those here and there in this query, but none of them seem to fit together. Her motivation is to be alone so she can reach her goal of reading math books, but the queen wants her killed? That isn’t drama, it’s a disconnect.

Let’s say that the X-Men comparison does work for your novel. Then you start with Sarabande learning she has powers. Everything before that is setup. “When bookish Sarabande [does this], she [discovers she has a power]. And her guardian the Queen [has this motivation, so she wants Sarabande killed].” That’s conflict. Then give us Sarabande’s motivation and goal, which she probably discovers through her new friends, and show us obstacles (the queen’s response).

I need to see a clear C+O+G in this query.

I’m posting a guide to writing queries immediately after this post. Read the WATCh post, determine which kind of novel THE BITTERBLOODS is, and then read similar queries to get some ideas for your own. Then resubmit to me, and I’ll edit your revision.

Best of luck! Once you get this started in the right place, I think everything will fall into line nicely. You can do it!

Query #6 November 2014


Below is the sixth 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.

Dear –,

To seventeen-year-old Zéphyrine, the minds of others are playgrounds.

I wasn’t in love with this, but I still liked it. It was just bogged down with sticky words—short, common words that slow the eye down and distract from the important parts. Now it’s tight and snappy.

P.S. Watch your spaces. Some of these paragraphs had extra ones between them.

As a mind witch, she can manipulate thoughts, rewrite events and erase memories. She’s the Ravager’s most useful asset, but after so many years at his service, she’s tired of using her powers to hurt others. Those underlined words I’d usually trim down, but I think here it works in your favor, giving that annoyed, tired voice. If Zeph isn’t annoyed and tired of working with the Ravager, then you’ll want to cut “so many.” You were also missing a space here. The one time she tried to walk away, her father—the Ravager and immune to her powers—burned her half to death, and Zéph fears what will happen if she ever tries to say no again. I feel thrown under the bus here. Telling us that the guy she’s enslaved to is her father shouldn’t be a throwaway statement. That needs its own sentence, or it needs to be the most emphasized part of the sentence. The last few words of any sentence are the most important. So you could say something like “she’s tired of using her powers to hurt others, and she’s tired of the Ravager using her. It didn’t exactly make for the best father/daughter relationship.” Then mention her trying to walk away and what she fears, cutting the immunity part.

Other than that awkward bit, this is a great paragraph. We know what makes her special, what her problem is, and what she wants.

As her father’s hunger for power grows, Zéph is sent deep into the heart of the enemy territory of Almar—the neighboring country her father intends to conquer. Cut the cliches. Her task is straightforward: infiltrate the castle and manipulate the King’s thoughts. Following orders, she compels Her straightforward task/orders didn’t mention the king’s son, so this is confusing. And “compels” is a common enough verb that I didn’t get that she was using mind control. She could have just been nice to him, for all I knew. Agents skim, so you need to be as precise and concise as possible. I suggest “manipulate the thoughts of the royal family. As a result,”  Jasen, the king’s only son, to think thinks of her as a friend and confidente confidant. (Don’t be repetitive; choose the more specific word.), but the respect he has for her intelligence is all his own. delete extra space When Iriae, a mad girl as powerful as the Ravager, asks Zéph to join her in defeating him Wait, who’s “him” here? I read this as defeating Jasen, you know, because Iriae is mad, so why not, and she happens to be as powerful as the Ravager. Is Iriae wanting to defeat Ravager? This is the problem with parentheticals—they can be eliminated from the sentence. Eliminate this one, and Iriae wants to defeat Zeph’s new friend., it’s time to no, cut this. make a choice: shatter the illusion she has with Jasen and ask for his help and his father’s army, or carry on being the Ravager’s mind witch. This seems like a false dilemma. Why does she have to ask Jasen’s help if she can team up with Iriae to defeat her father? If Iriae wants to defeat the prince, then this dilemma makes a bit more sense, because Zeph either has to cancel her mission to save Jasen, or she has to let Iriae win and become just as bad as any of these crazy powerful people.


Zéph makes no commitments, but when her mother, who she thought long-dead, turns up very much alive and on Iriae’s side, Now you’re going to give another reveal in the query, and another dilemma? Do we need this extra information? I don’t think so. she gives in to temptation and risks everything to finally break free of her slave-like existence. Three cliches here. Break free is fine, since you’re using it literally, but the others need to go. But if they fail, Jasen will lose his kingdom, Huh? Is this implying he’s the king now? Iriae and Zéph’s mother What? They’re sisters? will be killed, and Zéph will be condemned to eternal torture at the hands of her father. I’m sure that this is all built up steadily in your manuscript, but all of this thrown into a sentence makes this seem like a melodrama. I expect a radio voice to come in and say, “Will she survive? Come back next time for the next installment of . . .”

MIND WITCH is a YA dark fantasy novel complete at 75,000 words that will appeal to readers of Ubik and A Girl of Fire and Thorns. Why aren’t these titles in all caps? How is this like Ubik? Try to keep any comp titles fairly recent. Within 5 years is best, 10 is okay. Ubik was published the same year as the first moon landing. Like Clive Barker’s ABARAT, it’s an illustrated novel, . . . Arabat is? I’m not seeing any illustrations in any of the Amazon previews. And reading reviews, the revised versions of the novel don’t include any illustrations. Can you think of another, more recent or accessible illustrated novel?  . . . and my portfolio can be found at [redacted]

Your hook and first paragraph are solid, or they will be when you cut the excess. The second one is confusing, and the third is overly complicated. Show us who the character is (check) what she wants at the beginning (check) what stands in her way (check) what the stakes are (check). If you want a third paragraph there, then I want to know what her secondary goal is. Sure, she wants to be free from her father, but what else does she want? Friendship with Jasen? Then tell me that and what gets in her way. Does she want to be reunited with her true family? Then hint at that, without spoilers, and tell me what gets in her way.

Query #5 October 2014


Below is the fifth 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.

Dear –,

In Mithos, where white magic is fueled by purity and black magic by passion, True Love is known as the Intolerable Sin. So are all virgins magical? It’s the most unstable and dangerous source of magic in the world. The punishment is simple: a quick death.  This is a great premise. I’d include “by assassin” at the end of the last sentence, otherwise I might assume they are tried and/or executed.

Martia is a Love Child, the daughter of True Lovers.  How did her mother stay alive long enough for her to give birth? Did they assassinate the father, wait until the mother had her, and then assassinate her? You don’t have to answer all these questions in your query—they’re simply ones I’m asking. Raised within the walls of Siris Academy, she’s been taught to hate both True Love and herself. I’ll expect that this comes in later, that you’ll tell me somehow she’ll learn to accept or even love herself. If you suggest that your novel has the armature of theme and character development, don’t drop the ball. Now that she’s graduated, Martia is out in the real world, doing what the Academy trained her to do: assassinate those who’ve committed the Intolerable Sin before [the consequence of what happens if true lovers touch].

Then Martia meets Narin, the eldest son of Mithos’s empress. When their eyes meet, the world freezes—Narin is her True Love. I’d replace this cliche with more of an interaction, more of an emotional response. Make Martia active, not the passive recipient who things happen to. Martia refuses to fall under the lulling not sure why you chose this word here… spell of the Intolerable Sin. She knows a mere caress between True Lovers could send out a flare capable of eating through skin and bone. This should occur earlier. It’s the stakes, the consequence. I want to know it beforehand, so when you tell me that she’s found her True Love, I’m already going, “No! Either they’ll be killed or they’ll kill a bunch of people!” Make dramatic irony work for you. But Narin is convinced they can learn to control their wild new power. What convinces him? Why should we believe him? Why should she? Because of his kind words and gentle smiles, Martia starts believing she’s more than a brutal executioner. This doesn’t make sense to me. His actions shouldn’t affect her identity. Her reactions to his actions should affect her identity. Make her an active heroine. After the Academy discovers her crime, I want details of when the crime occurs. Show me that it’s happened in the query. her choice must be made—kill Narin as she was trained to do  It’s not that—it’s ignoring her feelings and assassinating her true love to cover up her “sin”, or give into the black magic,  again, I want to see that there could be at least some hope of survival here. betraying her past and risking her future.  Not only her own future, but the future of everyone, right? It’s not just suicide, it’s a mass murder suicide. Someone who is even considering that doesn’t seem like a sympathetic character, unless we’re given a real reason to believe it can work.

Complete at 90,000 words, [TITLE] is a stand-alone romantic fantasy with series potential. It may appeal to adults who enjoyed the intricate world found in POISON STUDY and the forbidden love in DELIRIUM while they were teens. The [however many pages the agent’s sub guidelines require] have been included in the body of this email. Thank you for your time and consideration. Might include author names of your comp titles.

This premise is fresh and intriguing, but the second paragraph needs to hint at the stakes (the consequences), and the third paragraph needs to be edited for precision. This query is very close to being irresistible.