Friday, May 20, 2022

Not dead, not fled!


You have not posted anything since your wallet came home, and since stolen wallets can lead to kidnapping, I'm worried about you. Please just post something - a picture of a pine marten? Just to let everyone know you're OK. 
I see you, slacker shark!


Pine martens are one of my favorite animals. They are the cutest, sweetest-looking things, but I just saw something that said "don't be fooled...they can take down a deer." It might be my patronus.
I apologize for being a slacker shark here at the blog.
I've had my nose to the grindstone.
I've gotten a lot done but I also have a very pointy nose!

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Wallet Came Home!

 I left my wallet in the local bodega on Monday.

Didn't realize until Tuesday. Promptly retraced my steps, asked the cashier, searched my apartment just in case (I'm serious, I looked under the couch cushions, and under the ironing board cover**)

Zilch, zip, nada.

I notified the bank that my cards were gone. That instantly locks the account which is great until the auto-payments get declined, and you realize you can't get any replacement cash. (I recently saw a thread on Twitter about how people didn't use cash anymore. Man oh man, that is so Not Me!)

I had resigned myself to a week of feeling sorry for myself when today, lo and behold, Wallet came home!

No note or anything.

And of course the $96 I had just gotten from the ATM was gone gone gone.

But I now do NOT have to stand in line at the DMV.

I have my ID back, so I can go to the bank and cash a check for funds.

My vaxx card.

My voter registration card.

My Met membership card! 

And not least, my reminder to look for ways to do good in the world.

**the reason I looked under the ironing board cover is because I iron my currency.

Whoever got that $96, I hope they noticed those bills had no dog eared corners or wrinkles. (Yes I am a loon, it's a well-known fact.)

Are you a loon about something like this?

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

When World Events Intrude on Your Plot

I guess timing can be everything. I am at the querying stage for a historical fiction manuscript. Unfortunately, recent events have stopped me in my tracks.

The story takes place between 1941 and 1943, a great bulk of it in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, as well as in Soviet Russia.

I don’t want to give the impression to an agent that I’m trying to profit off the current war in Ukraine. This is not my goal. Obviously the manuscript took more than a year to write, and I will absolutely shelve this story if I have to until that conflict ends. As it took a lot of historical research about the holocaust and of the then Soviet Ukraine, that area of the world has become near and dear to me. The Russian invasion and their senseless brutality is atrocious.

Should I wait or should I continue on querying?

One of my clients, Dana Haynes, and I joke that the CIA/NSA should read his early drafts so they know about upcoming hotspots in the world.

More than once his novels have been set in places that subsequently hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

There are some events for which any query could be "too soon." 9/11 was one for me. The Pandemic is another.

But both of those are my personal opinions and not to be taken as an industry standard.

You're not exploiting the current catastrophe in Ukraine for your own ends.
Query with a clear conscience.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

More on personalization

Hello Madam Shark,

I binge-read your blog and Query Shark over the holidays, and I feel tons more educated about publishing and querying. Thank you!

You make it very clear that you believe personalization is not a good use of time/space in a query. I have absorbed this into my being.

I recently did a workshop with a long-time editor where we discussed query letters. The editor believed personalization is critical. Not just "get the agent's name right" kind of personalization, but the personalization where you mention if you were alumni of the same school or share an interest in Great British Bake-Off.

I understand personalization if you met an agent at a conference, or even a quick mention that your manuscript perfectly matches their manuscript wish list (if it's true). But if my book isn't about, say, murders on Harvard's campus or a Rhode Island baking competition, I don't see the need for the personalizations mentioned above.

I mentioned my opinion during the workshop, and the editor and I came away politely disagreeing; they thought that human connection in a personalization is critical to get an agent to read on. I know editors aren't agents, and even agents disagree about personalization. If an agent specifically mentions they want personalization, yes, I'll do it. But I'm worried now that if I do zero personalization as a default, I'll sabotage myself during the querying process.

Am I worrying too much about this as I spin my hamster wheel? Or are there agents who will reject me because I don't add a few personal sentences in my query?

Dear Chum,

The fact that I think personalization is an utter waste of a writer's time, and further, is a huge barrier to new writers, doesn't address the reasons agents ask for it.

Within the last five years the number of agents has increased a lot. I'm thinking it might have doubled. That means writers have a lot of potential agents to sort through.

But at the same time the number of agents has increased, so has the number of writers, and the barriers to querying have diminished substantially. All you need now is an email address. When I started in this biz, you mailed your queries with an SASE if you wanted to hear back. There was no Publishers Marketplace. The Writers Digest Guide to Literary Agents was out of date the minute it was set in type.

Agents use personalization to sort out shotgunned queries from the more researched ones.

I understand that position, but I don't support it.

But, I've lost that battle.
The only question now is how to personalize effectively.

Here are some examples of what NOT to do that  I've seen recently:

According to your agency's website, you represent exciting debut fiction writers,

This isn't effective, you're telling me what my website says.

If you think I'll instantly conclude that you too are an exciting debut fiction writer, you're wrong.

I read your bio and it is inspiring as well as impressive. You are looking for voice, style, to gasp, and to laugh.

Again, parroting my own words back to me, and thinking if you do that, I'll tbelieve you've got voice and style. You're wrong.

Here's an older blog post on how to effectively personalize your query.

Personalization is a total pain in the ass, but you don't want to just say "the hell with it" cause in some cases, lack of personalization is an instant pass. 

The last thing you want is a pass cause you didn't at least try.

Friday, April 08, 2022

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Yo Sharque, I have some reservations about your phraseology!**


Hi Janet,

I'm a long time reader and fan of your blog. You even answered one of my questions about maps in books a few years back. Your recent blog post about characters having a code is very informative and helpful. 

In it, you use the phrase "off the reservation". While this isn't the most offensive phrase out there, it's not great. It's a casual reference to a time when First Nation Peoples were forced to stay on designated plots of land. They weren't allowed to move freely throughout their state or country. Leaving without a permit was illegal.

It's an ugly part of North American history and one that has in no way been resolved. First Nation People are still fighting for the same rights that white Americans and Canadians (I'm from Canada) take for granted. This is a phrase that has kind of infiltrated white vernacular. We use it to mean "going rogue", unaware of its history and meaning and that it's a thoughtless and hurtful term for a lot of people. 

As you always say, our word choices matter, so I always appreciate when people point out my own blind spots in my language. I hope you don't mind me doing the same.

I very MUCH appreciate this kind of helpful note.
You're right.
It IS a blind spot.

And holy hell, was it hard to find something that worked in its place.
But I'd like to avoid giving offense when none is intended.
And this wasn't a character speaking; it wasn't dialogue.
(people say things that are insensitive and racist all the damn time.)

This was just me, making a point.
And so I agree, it should be changed.

BUT, I still remember and grimace about a lady who complained about the extensive use of the N-word
in a YA book about young black men in a juvenile detention center.

To have removed that word, in that context, would have been bowdlerizing.

This isn't a matter of find/replace.
It's like spell checking its/it's in a manuscript. It all depends on context.
**anything to get a reference to The Music Man in a blog post

Monday, April 04, 2022

The Code



Season 2 The Wire

Former Homicide cop Jimmy McNulty has been detailed to The Boat (marine unit) for his transgressions

(as perceived by the powers that be) in the Barksdale case (season 1.)


When he and his partner fish a dead girl out of the Patapsco, the Homicide Unit investigates (sort of) and calls it a suicide.


But McNulty spots some anomalies.

It's not his case and no one else cares.


But McNulty can't let it slide.

That's his code. It's not expressed as such. It's usually called his arrogance, or his insubordination, but Jimmy McNulty has to solve murders.


When 13 more bodies are found in a shipping container on the dock, jurisdiction is in question. McNulty puts concerted effort into forcing the Baltimore Homicide unit into getting the case. Yes, he does it to fuck with Rawls the unit commander who demoted him, but he would have done it anyway because of his code:  he has to solve murders.


This theme runs through all five seasons culminating in McNulty running his own ops to do what he thinks is right.


The Code is never overtly stated as such.

There are references to it here and there.


It's actually better that the audience intuits The Code so it doesn't sound like some sort of oration on right and wrong.


An example of a direct statement of code is the conversation between Bunk and Omar.

The reason this works (when it generally would not) is that Omar is a thug. Even a thug must have a code!




In The Professional, the professional assassin played by Jean Reno says "no women, no kids." about who he will target. We know the Bad Guy is VERY bad because he does kill women and kids.





You can't have a moral dilemma without a code.


And moral dilemma is the essence of plot.

Unbearable choices.



What's your main character's code?

Even if it's never directly on the page, we should be able to intuit it.




Saturday, April 02, 2022

Recent query stats



These stats are drawn from the last week or so of queries.


The number one reason for a pass was the query was for a book in a category I don't take on.

I'm glad to get queries for whatever category you want to send. I'm not all caught up in the "make sure you know what I'm looking for" stuff.  I know what I'm looking for, and I'm happy to sort it out myself.



Reason #2

Not enough plot to interest me.

Writers often confuse set up and back story for plot. They're not the same thing. Plot is about choices and stakes.  If I don't know what's at stake, that's a lack of plot problem.


Reason #3

Word count.

Either too little or too much. 14,000 word novels are an instant pass. So are those with 200K.


Reason #4


A badly written query means a badly written book.

I don't mean your query is structured poorly, or you don't have plot on the page, or your comps are outlandish. I mean the writing itself is not up to par. 


I know this strikes fear in every querying writer's heart. All of you think "oh she's talking about ME!"

(I'm probably not.)


Being able to assess your own work is very difficult. That's why writers groups can be helpful. Beta readers too.


But the best way to build your confidence is to keep writing. Look at the stuff you wrote a year ago. Are you better now?


(I look at some of my earliest blog posts and cringe.)


A lot of people query before they're ready to be published. But a pass now doesn't mean you've been sent down forevermore.  Keep writing. Daily if you can.


And this makes me want to revitalize the flash fiction contests; a lot of you said those were very helpful for building your skills.


Friday, April 01, 2022

New submission guidelines

I'm no longer accepting email queries.


All queries need to come on paper.


Personalized of course. The salutation must be Dear Snookums.


You must query me first, and exclusively for 60 days. I'm very busy and can't be rushed.


Make sure you include comps. But use only books I've sold.


In your bio section:

If you are Steve Forti, you must include the word Nemesis.

If you are Katja Schulz, you must translate Snookums into German.


If you are not either of these people , you must tell me why Julie Weathers is the cat's pajamas.


You must include your latest Wordle score.


And last but not least, make sure you include a $20 bill.




I'm going to die laughin if this ends up on Query Tracker.



Thursday, March 31, 2022

What's the benefit of an initial hardcover publication?

One question that's been bouncing around in my head - why publishers put out debut novels in hardcover.


I think profit margins are higher on hardcover, so I get that for the publisher they make more on lower volume, so yay for them. Isn't it hard on a debut author?


Hardcover price is a tough pill to swallow if you're trying out a new author for the first time, so it must make some buyers hesitate. And if sales are low, there might never be a paperback version. So the debut gets stuck with a track record of low sales.

Is there an upside to hardcover for the author that I'm missing?

Is it ever something that comes up in contract negotiations, trying to talk a publisher out of a hardcover print?


Any light you can shed on this would be really educational, I haven't seen it discussed.



Back in the day, hardcovers were just about the only format that generated reviews. And reviews drove sales.


Back in the day, libraries only bought hardcovers. And they bought a lot of books.


So, hardcover was a valid choice. Yes it was more expensive, but it was considered worthwhile.


Now things are very different.

Libraries are buying fewer books, Amazon discounts hardcovers so steeply it's hard for anyone to make money, and price-sensitive buyers are migrating to ebooks.


So yes, savvy agents are talking initial publication format during contract negotiations.


It's one of the things I talk to about editors even at the pitch stage.


Each book is different so there is no one right approach.




I should mention that I'm a total book snob. I confess it freely. I love hardcovers.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Why you need an author website

The question I hear most often from new writers is what the heck am I going to put on a website; I haven't published anything.


If you're just starting to query, or querying again after unsatisfactory results, think of your website as the director's cut of your query.


Your query must be very short; 250 words is the sweet spot.

That means you had to leave out a lot.


Start with your bio.

You can put pictures on your website. Pictures of your dog/cat/dragon.

Even though I love looking at pictures of babies, I do NOT suggest you post pictures of your kids online.


You can elaborate on hobbies you have, or where you live.

I've had intriguing conversations with writers about all sorts of things that I read in their bio.


You can talk about your writing if you want. You can post a (SHORT) excerpt  from your book.


You can talk about things you value, or good causes you're involved with.

I do that on my own website.


And you can have a place for people to sign up for your mailing list.  A robust mailing list is the #1 thing I look for when I've found a book I like, and an author that sounds conducive to work with.


Get a URL that's as close to your name (or your pen name) as you can.

Wacky URLs like FlitteryGibbertyBoo tell me you're not taking this whole thing seriously.

URLs that are hard to spell (mur3skeyWr9 for example) are contraindicated.


If your URL looks like a password, time for a new one.


An effective author website can be a big help for your stalwart little query.


Lack of one isn't a deal breaker, but why not use all the tools you have at your disposal.


Any questions?



Monday, March 28, 2022

Malady Monday

 I'd intended to have a blog post prepared for today but this past week I've been felled by a brutal cold.  I was so relieved it wasn't Covid that I almost (almost!) didn't mind the addiction to Sudafed.

Hopefully today will be the first day I don't have to wake up an hour early just to blow my schnozz enough to be able to speak.

Me, soaking my head

Friday, March 25, 2022

Reader warnings

I read a blog post of yours from 2017 about trigger warnings. I am writing a YA mystery/thriller and want to add a note to readers that the book does not glorify abuse/suicide/etc. with the hotline provided. Should I add this to my manuscript? I have gotten different answers from professors and thought it may help to ask an agent their opinion. 

Your intent is pure and to be respected.
But let's think about how this looks in the real world.

You're trying to assauge your readers' hesitation on those two hot button topics---but you don't know what drives that hesitation. Is it the mere mention of abuse or suicide? There are readers who don't want to read any book that has those things in it.

Is it the idea that characters dealing with these problem is "glorifying them"?
That's a pretty skewed viewpoint; abuse and suicide happen in real life. Talking about it isn't the same thing as glorifying it. At all.

The one thing you can do is write as honestly as you can about topics that are difficult to talk about. You're not responsible for anything but your own words.

How someone reads them is their responsibility.

As to including any kind of helpful information, the only problem with that is books are in print (we hope) for decades, and information like this can be outdated.

The better place for this is on your website, or in your social media, where you can update it.

Your job is not to manage your readers' expectations.
Your job is to tell the truth as you see it, as honestly as you can.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Back at the starting gate



Just before Covid hit, I had three agent offers for my novel. Talk about a tough choice I never thought I'd be making! After much deliberation, I signed with one and notified the others I was passing on their offers. It was all cordial and professional, and the other agents graciously understood.


Unfortunately, the agent I signed with was unable to sell the manuscript and has since shifted her focus to nonfiction. She's grown frustrated with the difficulties of selling fiction in this market and recommended I submit my newest novel to another agent.


As such, we amicably parted ways, and I'm back in the query pool with a new manuscript that hasn't yet been on submission. My question is: would it be poor form (tacky even?) to query it to the agents I previously passed on?




You'd be nuts not to.


This kind of thing happens more than you think.

I've been on the other end of it myself.


I shopped a ms I loved, couldn't find any editors who loved it as much as I did.

When she wrote a second book, it didn't resonate with me the way the first one did.

The author and I agreed she needed fresh eyes, and probably a new agent.


I was delighted when she connected with an agent who'd been declined for book #1.

That agent loved this second book, sold it in a multiple book deal and everyone (me included)

is happy.




The reason this will work is "It was all cordial and professional, and the other agents graciously understood."



Which is why you don't burn bridges even when you think you've crossed the river.



A writer who burned me at the offer stage won't get a second chance.



Monday, March 21, 2022

My agent wants more revisions


Two years ago I accepted an offer of representation for my novel. After signing, I did a few major rounds of edits, but my agent believes these edits have not successfully refined the book. While we have a difference in visions that I didn't fully understand until our process was well underway, I still think my revisions improved the book.


My agent's notes have always been insightful, friendly, and thorough—but while at first I thought I was responding to them and producing a clearer and more streamlined narrative, I have come to feel further from submission than I was two years ago, and I'm not sure what to think anymore.


Trust your gut.

You may not know a lot about publishing but you recognize lack of progress.


For whatever reason, you and your agent are not on the same wavelength.

This is a BIG problem.


If your book isn't going out on submission, you're not moving forward.


It's time for some very direct communication with Agent Revisosaurus.


Tell your agent you are feeling frustrated with the amount of revising.


Ask if the agent thinks you're making progress.


Ask what the plan is for getting the work out on submission.


And in the meantime, it might behoove you to call in an outside expert. There are lots of former publishing house editors doing freelance work now. Have them read your manuscript, not for an edit, but for what I've called a second set of eyes. The question you want to ask is "is this ready for an editor to see?"


 I frequently call in help on manuscripts just to make sure I'm not missing something, or I haven't fallen so far in love with something that I've missed some fatal flaws.  I find those beta reads very valuable.


All that said, the first thing you want to do is talk to your agent. Zoomies, or phone, either one, but something where you can hear tone of voice.


It's a whole lot easier to suggest edits to a manuscript than it is to send it out on submission. I'm not sure if your agent is feeling overwhelmed, or just feeling the pandemic insanity.


You can revise till the cows come home but if you want cheese, someone needs to get out the milking pail.



Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Reading for comps


I've been reading a lot these past few weeks, cause I'm looking for good comps for a book I'm sending out on submission.


Here's what I've read (so far):


The Stranger Behind You

Carol Goodman

Saving Ruby King

Catherine Adel West

Saving Ruby King is one of the best written books I've ever read.

Here's one sentence I have in my reading journal: "She wanted to fix people that liked being broken."

Just One Look

Lindsay Cameron

"Reconciling what the truth used to be with what the truth was now."

The Wife Between Us

Greer Hendricks

The Couple Next Door

Shari Lapena

My Lovely Wife

Samantha Downing

I Don't Forgive You

Aggie Blum Thompson



Darling Rose Gold

Stephanie Wrobel

Darling Rose Gold is a true sox-knocker.

Please See Us

Caitlin Mullen

Please See Us won Best First at the Edgars, and it was a VERY competitive field (including Darling Rose Gold and My Lovely Wife)

One of the best things about my job is that I have to read current books!

It's required!

Are you reading any front-list books? 

Monday, February 14, 2022

Query widely!

I'm a new author living in Australia, I wonder whether it is appropriate to submit a story set in the UK, and in a fantasy location as well.

Can I send to agents in the UK and US?

You can even send to agents who are vacationing on Carkoon.
Cast as wide a net as you can.

I have clients across the globe.
The contract they sign with me is governed by US contract law.

A publishing contract is often governed by the contract laws of the country where the publisher does business.

But right now, query widely.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Book titles!


I guess Jeff Somers isn't the only one who has a hard time finding good titles!

Thursday, February 10, 2022