Tough love for would-be authors

Trying to sell a novel? Talk to the Query Shark, but be prepared to hear ‘This stinks.’
Julia McKinnell

Tough love for would-be authorsYou’ve finished writing your novel. Now you need a literary agent. To get an agent, you must write a query letter. There’s just one snag. You don’t know the format, or how to pitch the book or to introduce yourself. You’re drowning in questions. But wait. Here’s Query Shark to the rescue.

Query Shark is the mercilessly frank alter ego of New York literary agent Janet Reid. Query Shark tears queries to shreds, circling errors and snapping at statements that make no sense. Query Shark critiques queries for free, and then posts them at for all to learn from. Names of writers are removed. Fiction queries only.

The idea came out of an event Reid started for the New York chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. Reid told Maclean’s, “My idea was that writers would come meet with agents and bring their queries. The agents would help them refine their queries: this works, this not so much. People responded very positively to seeing queries and comments. A light bulb went off over my head, and Query Shark was born in April 2008.”

The shark doesn’t like to be hurtful. “Like everyone else, I would rather not say ‘this stinks’ to someone. Yet the truth is, much of what agents see at the query letter stage is simply not ready to be seen. But how does a writer know that? They get rejection letters filled with euphemisms (“not right for me”) and phony best wishes. They’re expected to know what to do without any kind of actual coaching. It’s like asking a gymnast to do a back handspring but not telling them how to do it. Injury ensues!”

In a recent query to the shark, a writer says that his main character’s impending death will “symbolically tombstone a generation.” “Tombstone is not a verb, not now, not in the future, not ever,” snaps the shark, and that’s just a taste of the tone.

The shark instructs on every aspect of how to write this brief but crucial letter. When a creative writing teacher starts her query: “To Whom It May Concern,” the shark bristles. “Agents LOATHE ‘To Whom It May Concern’ salutations. I’ll take ‘Hi Sweetums’ before To Whom It May Concern. You know who you’re querying; use his/her name. ‘Dear Reptilian Agent Who’s Standing Betwixt Me and Fame’ is better than TWIMC.”

When a writer pitches a novel about a cancer survivor who hooks up with a vampire, the shark is lukewarm. “There’s a huge debate in our office about whether vampires are dead (ha). What I mean, of course, is whether the vampire category is last year’s hot topic. I’m not taking anything vampiric unless it’s a wildly new approach just cause the editors I talk to always need to hear something very new and fresh right now. To that end you might focus less on the backstory and more on the reasons Kate survived cancer.” Another writer queries, “Dear Query Shark, I hate the show Lost. Perhaps hate is too strong a word, I despise Lost. I loved the first season . . . ” The shark moves in. “You better hope that whoever is reading this has a clue what Lost is. I don’t.” Further on, the shark slings her blue ink: “So basically, you’re taking the premise of a TV show that everyone knows about except me, and writing a different ending. You might want to try for something a little less derivative. You’ve got a very basic stranded on a desert island story. There’s no plot. There’s no conflict. There’s no antagonist. This is a form rejection.” Someone else has a go with a novel about dog-napping and puppy mills. “Dear Query Shark, Childless landowner Emily Hunt lives through her whippets, especially a little bitch named Hope.”

“What do ‘childless’ and ‘landowner’ have to do with the story?” the shark asks. “Are these the two most important things we need to know about Emily? My guess is no. Therefore, don’t put them first in a query letter.” When the writer adds, “The conclusion is relentlessly rewarding,” the shark begs, “Please please please don’t tell me how I’m supposed to respond to a book. It just makes me say ‘wanna bet?’ ” The shark concludes, “People like to read about dogs. You might have a good story in here. This query letter is like a springer spaniel with a winter coat. It needs a bout with the clippers to spruce it up.”

“I believe,” says another writer approaching the shark, “you will have a heartfelt fervent desire to represent my book.” The shark does not. “Please don’t ever include a sentence like this in a query letter. I know you want me to feel that way, but be cool: don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. Just tell me about your book.”