7 Words You Probably Shouldn’t Use in Your Query

So you’re ready to query an agent. Good for you. I’m not going to tell you how to do that. There are plenty of excellent articles elsewhere on this subject. (Google it.) But I do have a smattering of advice, as indicated ever so subtly by the title of this post as well as the redundant sentence that follows this one.

Here, now, are seven words you probably shouldn’t include in your query.

Brilliant – I know. Your novel is brilliant. In fact, it’s so incredibly brilliant, Harper Lee decided not to publish a second novel because there was no way she could compete with your novel’s brilliance. Yes, this statement demands suspension of disbelief regarding time travel (among other things), but how is that any less outrageous than the claim that your novel is the next To Kill a Mockingbird? Brilliant is something others say about you, not something you say about yourself.

Literary – I’ll probably step on a few Birkenstocked toes here, but literary isn’t a genre; it’s an appraisal. Yes, yes, I know. Bookshops and book review sites and oodles of other places use “Literary” just like they use Science Fiction, Romance and Mystery – as a label to identify a certain category of books. I understand why they do this. Laziness. Okay, not just that. They also use it because calling something Literary lets us know how Very Important it is. (It also signals to booksellers, “Caution, Low Sales Ahead Unless Oprah Says Otherwise.”) Use the query to tell about your book, not to make a case that you’re a Very Important Author. That’s for the agent to decide anyway.

Bestseller – No, it’s not (unless you’ve already sold a few hundred thousand e-books on Amazon and you’re just toying with agents by querying them when you really don’t need their help anyway). Nor is your book certain to be a bestseller. Don’t say it. Please don’t say it. I hope it is a bestseller. I really do. But you don’t know that. No one does until it happens.

One-of-a-kind – Here’s the thing – every book (apart from those that are plagiarized) is “one-of-a-kind.” Of course, some are more one-of-a-kinder than others and I suspect that’s why you’re tempted to use this or similar words (like Fresh, New and Unique). You want the agent to know you’re Not Like Everyone Else. If your book really is Not Like Everyone Else’s, the agent will discover this. And then she’ll tell you. (See a trend here?)

Potteresque –  Or Twilightical. Or DaVinciCodial. There’s a proper time and place for mentioning books that are similar to the one you’ve written, but if you name-drop the obvious gazillion-sellers, you risk being query-dropped into the virtual trash bin. What do you do if your book actually is Potteresque? Let the plot description reveal that. Then make sure you have a good lawyer on retainer. Especially if your protagonist is a wizard named Jerry Kotter.

Fitzenwhacker – “What, you don’t know that word? Really? But it’s critically important to my story about the Grlabbbn uprising. If I can’t reference the Fitzenwhacker, how will agents know why young Pllrhssk is chosen to be the new Jjarrb?” Look, your fantasy or science fiction masterwork can have all the created words you want (fair warning: if you have too many, readers will revolt), but don’t invoke them in your query unless absolutely necessary and only then if context makes it perfectly clear what the hell you’re talking about.

Rouge – “But what if my book is about a makeup artist.” Oh, sure. Yes, then you can use rouge. I’m just including this word because some of you thought you’d written “rogue.” There’s nothing funnier than reading a query about a protagonist who is in love with the dashingly handsome rouge. (I do love a quality rouge, don’t you?) Double-check your spelling before hitting send. And also make sure the words you use are the words you actually meant to use.

Query on my wayward son.

The Definitive Post on Definitive Posts on Writing

No, I didn’t stutter when I wrote that title. This is THE definitive post on definitive posts on writing. You won’t need to read any other posts about definitive posts on writing. Just this one. Because it’s definitive. If I write the word definitive a few more times, it will start to sound funny when you read it.

Definitive. Definitive. Definitive. Definitive.

See what I mean? I’ll bet you’re even starting to mistake it for diminutive. Maybe I should re-title this post: The Diminutive Post on Definitive Posts on Writing. Then I’d be compelled to keep this under 200 words. I’m not going to re-title it. Sorry.


This is the point (the only one I’m making, though I recommend reading further in case I accidentally reveal the Secret to Becoming a Bestselling Author): There is no definitive post on writing.

There is no holy grail. There is no infallible formula. There is no Secret to Becoming a Bestselling Author. (Oops. Played my hand a bit soon there, didn’t I.)

While there are many great writing resources on the interwebs and in those ink-and-paper things people still call books, no single resource or collection of advice can make you a brilliant (or average, yet incredibly appealing to the masses) writer.

“So tell me something I don’t know,” you’re saying. You are saying that, aren’t you? (If you weren’t before, you just did in your head when you read that sentence. Yes, this counts.)

Okay, here’s something you don’t know: I had a dog when I was 11 and her name was Winnie the Pooch. I named her. Clever, don’t you think? Well, the truly clever part was that I really was naming her after the girl I liked at school. Her name was Winnie (yes, like in “The Wonder Years,” but this was long before “The Wonder Years”). It’s true. I secretly named a dog after a girl I liked. Now you know.

But that’s not really the point. And also, it is exactly the point. You see, the real key to becoming a great writer can’t be found in a blogpost or a how-to book. There is no magical piece of advice that can suddenly turn you from “Joe Nobody” into “Joe Nobody, Published Author and Writer of Some Importance.” That’s not to say learning all you can about writing isn’t a good thing. It’s a Very Good Thing. (See also: All My Other Posts.) But ultimately, the thing that makes you a great writer is…what makes you you.

Again, not stuttering. I know some of you are going to roll your eyes when you read that. Go ahead. Roll ’em. (Your eyes. Not that funny looking cigarette.) When you’re done rolling, take a look at your current work in progress. Do you see how all the advice you’ve assimilated from lovely websites and books has improved your writing? Congratulate yourself for studying the craft and applying what you’ve learned.

Then look again. Do you see you in the manuscript? If not, you’ve got some work to do. (Work = Writing Lots More Words Until “You” Eventually Appear In Them.) And if you do? Guess what – a blog didn’t give you that. Your life did. Every book you’ve read, every experience you’ve experienced, every dog you’ve secretly named after a girl you liked in the fifth grade, has helped to shape the way you shape words on the page.

And that, my friends, is what makes your writing great. You.

Now you’re wondering, “So I found myself in my writing. Does that mean I’ll sell a squillion books?” First of all, love the use of “squillion.” That’s so “you.” Second of all, maybe. Third of all, probably not. But here’s something I can say definitively about your books: no one else can write them. Not even James Patterson.

You’re the only one who can write your books.

You should probably go do that now.


Writing fiction can make you crazy.

Here’s how.

Step One – Over the course of your next three lifetimes, visit a few thousand publishing-related blogs and read every nugget of writerly wisdom you can find. Pay particular attention to literary agents’ blogs. They’re jam-packed with practical tips, such as:

“If your novel includes a prologue, you’re obviously a demon from the pit of hell. I don’t represent demons. At this time.”

“Don’t even think of misspelling the word query. Seriously, stop thinking about it. Have you stopped thinking about it? I didn’t think so. Please go away.”

“Backstory in a novel is like back hair on a competitive swimmer. It slows you down. And it’s totally gross. Three words: laser hair removal.”

Step Two – Look up published authors’ websites. Then read about their writing journeys and routines, where you’ll discover inspirational gems like these:

“I write an average of twelve million words before breakfast. Then I go for a 30-mile run and save a beached whale or two before lunch. Well, on my off days.”

“I sold my very first book. I wrote it with an eyebrow pencil on cocktail napkins while distracted by a lounge singer crooning Neil Diamond songs. It was a story about cannibal vampire monkeys. No one had written a story about cannibal vampire monkeys yet, so it became a bestseller. My next book is about cannibal vampire orangutans.”

“I wrote 97 novels before landing an agent. That 98th novel is the charm, writer friends. Just hang on until the 98th. Be encouraged!”

Step Three – Read every book you possibly can on writing.* Here are some of my favorites (I might have gotten the titles wrong):

Writing Adverbally for Fun and Profit

The First-Time Author’s 127-Step Guide to Probably Getting Published

I Wrote a Bestselling Novel. That Qualifies Me As a Writing Teacher. Buy This Book.

Step Four – Meet regularly with fellow writers at a trendy coffee shop to talk about your works-in-progress. Pay close attention when crit group members say things like this:

“Your protagonist should wear a hat. I think your book would be ten times better if she wore a hat. A blue hat, with white, frilly trim. Or you can keep her hatless. But then your book will suck.”

“You totally need to rewrite chapter one. And all the other chapters, too. Except for chapter nine. That’s the one with the sex scene, right? That one is brilliant. Did you want me to return this copy of the manuscript? How about I just keep chapter nine.”

“I thought your story was lovely. I especially liked the part where the cannibal vampire monkeys attacked the…what? That wasn’t your story? Yours was about a woman who is reunited with her long lost sister? I must have misplaced that. Sorry. But have you read the one about the cannibal vampire monkeys? You should write one like that.”

Step Five – Go insane.

Everyone on the planet has writing advice. (Including me.) If you try to take it all in, your head will explode. If you try to apply everything you do manage to take in, your head will explode. If you stuff dynamite in your mouth and light it, your head will explode, but that’s beside the point.

The point is this: DON’T PANIC.**

Study the craft. Read helpful blogposts and books. Listen to wise counsel. Then write. And write some more. And when you need a break? Take one. Don’t beat yourself up because your collection of writing advice isn’t complete. This isn’t Pokemon.

You have no reason to panic. You have plenty of time to follow your unique writing journey. Unless you’re on deadline. Or have sticks of dynamite in your mouth. Then you might want to panic at a level commensurate with the potential for serious injury. (Helpful hint: deadlines trump dynamite.)

Meanwhile, enjoy the ride. (And take notes. Someday you’ll probably want to write about it on your blog. You know, to inspire other writers. Or make them insane.)

Happy writing, kids. And relax, okay?


*I should probably mention here that I’m writing a book for fiction writers, too. The working title is, “Your Muse Isn’t Real (And She’s Trying to Kill You).” It will be a small book filled with potentially helpful advice and an equal portion of possibly harmful advice. You’ve been warned.

**The title of this post is offered in honor of the late, great Douglas Adams, who could have penned just those two words and I would still call him a favorite author. However, he didn’t stop at two. He wrote a few more. Many of them were quite well organized. You should read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy again.