Category Archives: The Publishing Process

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.

Exception Al

So there’s this unpublished writer. Let’s call him “Al.” (Stop rolling your eyes. It’s my blog. I can be as precious and quasi-clever as I want.)

Al recently completed his third novel.

His first, The Monkey on Her Back (which he never actually finished), wasn’t particularly amazing. Despite the clever title (the protagonist is a celebrated zoologist who loses her faith in evolution), the plot was predictable and the characters, plastic. The writing, however, wasn’t bad. Al had a natural gift.

Al didn’t know much about publishing when he decided he was meant to be a writer, so he was universally rejected when querying his unfinished novel to several well-known literary agents. Embarrassing as this experience was, it was just the slap in the face he needed. He decided to learn all he could about publishing before writing another word. After studying several editors’ and agents’ blogs and reading at least a dozen books on the craft and business of writing, Al knew exactly what he had to do: toss The Monkey on Her Back in the trash and start over.

He called his second novel Betrayal of Honor, but he wasn’t married to the title. He understood that publishing houses often changed book titles for marketing reasons, and he was okay with that. This time he followed protocol and sent a bunch of queries to agents who repped the sort of book he had written. His queries were succinct and smart and just funny enough to stand out from the crowd. He got three requests for partials and one request for a full, but nothing came of it. He queried a dozen more agents with even less success. Frustrated, Al considered taking a sabbatical from his dream (it had been downgraded to dream from calling) to pursue other interests.

Like bowling.

He began bowling once a week. Then twice a week. He joined a league. He bought a bowling ball. Then bowling shoes. He was good. Damn good. He had a natural gift.

Three months later and eight straight strikes into what was rapidly becoming the best (and most stressful) game he’d ever bowled, Al had an idea for another novel. A really good idea. In the ninth frame, Al killed his perfect game with a gutter ball and didn’t care. He knew this new novel was a winner.

So he wrote it. And re-wrote it. And when he was finally done with the third revision, he was convinced this was better than bowling a perfect game.

Ignoring the rejection and frustration that preceded him, Al carefully selected a half dozen agents he knew would be blown away by Under the Killing Tree and sent off his queries.

He knew the odds. He was far from naive. He’d befriended dozens of writers whose trying-to-get-published stories were just like his. He knew how hard it was for an author to get an agent, let alone publish a novel. He’d seen the statistics. Hell, he’d been one. But none of that mattered. Al’s book was a standout. His hard work was about to pay off. While thousands of other unpublished authors waited by their mailboxes for inevitable rejections, Al would be weighing representation offers from a multitude of agents, followed soon thereafter by contract offers from a multitude of publishing houses.

He was certain of it.

To celebrate, Al treated himself to a bowl of chocolate chip ice cream. This was no indulgence, it was a well-earned reward.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Al, three thousand, two hundred twenty seven other unpublished writers were just sitting down with their own bowls of chocolate chip ice cream.

But that wouldn’t have mattered to Al. He wasn’t like other writers. He had written Under the Killing Tree. And it was good.

Damn good.

Give Up Your Publishing Dreams

If title of this post makes you nervous, you probably shouldn’t read it.

Or maybe you should.

Before we go any further, I’m going to have to ask you to place your publishing dreams in the box marked “misc” at the back of the room.

Be sure to leave all your unfinished queries and How to Get Published books & blogs and all those publishing-related inspirational quotes you taped to your bathroom mirror. Yes, even the quote that says J. K. Rowling was rejected twelve million times before becoming a kajillionaire.

Now pick up a blank notebook and a pen. We’re going old-school here. No laptops. No Internet. (Ironic, I know, considering where you’re reading this. Just work with me here.) I don’t want you to be distracted by anything but the breathable world and the clutter already in your head.

Everyone find an uncomfortable place to sit. Got one? Good. Now, I want you to spend the next few minutes doing this:


Your brain is going to need a few minutes of nothing to flush out the rest of that publishing dream. Because you’re still holding onto it, aren’t you. Of course you are. You’re hoping that after we wend our way through a forest of writerly wisdom we’ll break through into a clearing filled with purple wildflowers and clear blue skies and babbling brooks and talking rabbits who will reveal the Grand Secret to Getting Published!


Look, I know you’re still hanging onto the dream. I can see it in your eyes. You’ve got a virtual piece of it stuffed into the virtual small pocket in the front of your virtual jeans – the one inside the other pocket. [What’s the deal with that, anyway? A pocket within a pocket? It’s not like it’s going to fool anyone. “I searched her pockets, boss, and couldn’t find the USB drive with the computer files that could implicate us in crimes against humanity. Or the theft of millions of dollars. Or whatever the plot is.” “Really?” “Really. It’s not there, boss. I mean it.” “Did you check the pocket inside the pocket?” “Wait? There’s a pocket inside the pocket?” “You’re an idiot.”]

Distracting you? Why would I do that? What box? The box with your publishing dreams? Oh, I had my assistant send it to a warehouse for safekeeping. The one where they took the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones. That one.

Forget about your publishing dreams.

Instead, do this: write the book you’ve always wanted to write. Or the book you know you were meant to write. Don’t write it for a demographic. Don’t write it to jump-start your writing career. Don’t write it because you’re sure you’re a better writer than Dan Brown. Don’t write it in hopes of becoming the next J. K. Rowling. Don’t write it for anyone but you.

Write it the way you want to write it. Use sentence fragments. Or run-on sentences. Write an epic. Write a novella. Verb all the words you want. Adverb to your heart’s content. Rules? There are no rules. There is just your novel.

Only yours.

Ready? Begin. I’ll just play Angry Birds on my iPhone while you write.

By the way, there are a lot of levels in Angry Birds.

[That’s it. This post is over. The box labeled “misc.” has been shipped to a fictional warehouse the size of the actual Rhode Island, which, granted, is really small for a state but really big for a warehouse. Just keep writing. I’ll be back. Don’t expect me to bring the talking rabbits.]


Sit down. No, you’re not in trouble. This isn’t about dangling too many participles or ending sentences with prepositions. It’s not about your premise or your plot. It’s not about your characters (they’re all really very lovely). And it’s not about your craft.

You want what? A drink? Sure. What would you like? I have tea and coffee and…

Really? This early? How about just the orange juice without the vodka?

Okay, where was I? Oh, right. You’re a good writer. Your novel is competent, smart and entertaining. You’ve obviously read lots of books on how to write. I bet you read all the really popular agent and editor blogs, too.


Hmm? Yes, you can move to the couch if you want. No, I don’t have any Xanax.

Like I was saying, your novel is good, but it’s missing something.

Yes, I know, I know. You’ve labored on this for months. You’ve poured every available minute into the writing and the re-writing. Your husband thinks you’re having an affair with someone named Strunk N. White. Your kids are wondering what a “crit group” is and where to find one and do they really need more feedback on their two-paragraph “what I did last summer” essays anyway? And your dog, Pulitzer, is afraid to ask to go for a walk because, apparently, his whimper sounds excessively adverbial and this causes you to scowl like Stephen King and it makes him nervous when you scowl like Stephen King.

No, you haven’t wasted your time. All that study has paid off. Surely you can see how you’ve improved. And if not? Go back and look at the first story you ever wrote. You’ve come a long way. I’m impressed. You should be, too.

But your novel is still missing something. Something really important.

It’s missing you.

You’re looking rather pale. Maybe you should lie down.

Let me say again – you’re a good writer. I’ve seen manuscripts from contracted novelists that aren’t as well-written as yours.

Good. You’re getting some color back. You were making me nervous there for a moment. I’m not trained in CPR.

It’s quite possible that your novel is good enough to capture the interest of a good literary agent. And maybe even good enough to get published someday. Of course, that could take a while. You know how tough it is for writers to break through. Of course you do, that’s why you’ve been so diligent at the craft and so dedicated to learning the business.

Maybe persistence and patience are all you need at this point.

But I can’t help wondering about that “missing something.” Where are you in your novel? Where’s the smart, slightly snarky writer whose email correspondence always makes me smile? Where’s the clever wordplay? The knowing smile? The arresting blend of confidence and vulnerability that I think of every time I think of you?

All that great writing advice might have kept you off the page. I like you. I like the way you think. I think readers would like you, too. And if you found you – if your novel had more of you in it – I believe that might just bump your manuscript from the “good enough to be published” pile into the “wow, I love this!” pile on an agent’s desk.

Ah, yes, that’s the million dollar question. And there’s no easy answer. I’d suggest these three steps:

  1. Let the manuscript sit. Don’t obsess over it. Forget about it and do something else for a while.
  2. Stop reading “how to write” books and websites. Instead, read novels. Good ones by authors you admire. Fresh ones by authors you’ve never met.
  3. When you finally do go back to your manuscript, forget the rules. Just (re)write as you hear the story in your head. You already know craft – that will come naturally now. This time, listen to your inner voice, follow it. Trust your instincts with word choice, pacing, rhythm, attitude. And here’s the real key: have fun.

Be you.

That’s not as easy as it sounds. And if you find you’re still struggling, start another novel. Yes. From the beginning. The more you write, the sooner you’ll find yourself on the page. When you do, you’ll not only be “good enough to be published” – you’ll be the only person who writes like you.

That’s the book I really want to read.


Yes, you can have the vodka now.

Listening Room

A few years ago, back when I was a cubicle dweller, I had the privilege of representing my publishing house at a local writers’ conference. I stocked up on Altoids (licorice, because that’s just how I rolled back then), made sure there was a pitcher of water nearby, sat down at my table and awaited the first of twelve victims…um…I mean hopeful authors.

I’m far from a conference expert, but my limited experience has taught me that the one-to-one meetings with unpublished authors can be endurance tests for both the editor and the writer. The editor, though hopeful to find that rarest of creatures – a writer with more talent than even she knows – instead usually finds himself queuing up “not for us” and “needs work” sentences that will temporarily destroy the writer’s dreams no matter how politely they’re delivered. Meanwhile, the writer sits on the edge of her chair (literally and figuratively) listening for words like “promise” and “potential” while attempting to excuse other words like “not for us” and “needs work” as evidence of the editor’s obvious inability to identify great writing.

Every once in a while, that rare creature does appear and the editor (and author) both walk away from the conference giddy and hopeful.

But this isn’t a post about that sort of rare creature. It’s about another kind.

The writer who hasn’t learned to listen.

She sat down at my table just before noon, her navy blue three-ring binder held tight to her chest like a child she might accidentally suffocate. She presented it to me and began to explain why her novel about an angel who saves a man from suicide was probably the best novel ever written about an angel who saves a man from suicide. “Lots of people have said so,” she added, then started to describe the plot while I tried to read the sample chapter in front of me.

It was not good. And by “not good” I mean “bad.” The writing was amateurish, the plot (or what I could determine of the plot) was somehow both meandering and predictable, and the dialogue was just this side of awful. I can’t remember the specifics (thankfully), but I do recall the feeling I experienced while reading. So in an attempt to share that feeling with you, I present this completely fabricated excerpt:

* * *

“I am going to jump off of this bridge,” Simon yelled. He was standing on the edge of the gray metal bridge that was also rusty and at least fifty feet above the water below that was rushing by like a rushing river.

Just then, a bright light came on on the opposite side of the bridge except there wasn’t a lamp post there so it couldn’t be a light. Could it be an angel? Yes it was!!!

“Do not jump!” said the angel. “I am here to save you!”

“I do not want to be saved,” said Simon. “I want to kill myself.”

“Why?” said the Angel.

“Because my wife left me and I drink too much alcohol and take drugs and say curse words and look at porn.”

“Those are very bad things, but that does not mean that you should kill yourself.”

“Why not?”

“Because life is worth living!”

“Not mine.”

“Even yours.”

The bright light that was actually an angel moved closer to him and reached out her hands (she was a girl angel) to him. When she got close enough to touch him, he grabbed her hands…and threw her over the bridge.

* * *

Okay, that last part wasn’t in the story. I wish it had been, then I would have had something encouraging to say about “out of the box thinking.”

Instead, I gave her some of my best (and most polite) “not for us” and “needs work” sentences. I didn’t want to discourage her desire to write, but believed I would be doing her a service if I gently lowered her expectations about being published through traditional methods.

She stared at me with open-mouthed horror, as if I’d just said aliens kidnapped her dog and impregnated her husband.

This is when I made my fatal mistake: I decided to fill the awkward silence with helpful editorial advice.


She had a ready excuse for everything I offered. It was essentially the same excuse, whether I was offering tips on dialogue or character or plot.

“You’re wrong,” she said.

I was glad when the next appointment walked into the room, but she wasn’t quite ready to leave. She kept saying over and over “everyone I know loves this story” while I refrained from explaining they were probably high at the time. Or just trying to be polite. Probably high. Finally, she left.

Later that day, I thought about what had happened. She obviously believed she was meant to be an author. And she was certain everyone else would agree with her. But she had made a critical error: she hadn’t learned how to listen.

Listening, like writing, is an art. You can always tell a writer who’s mastered the art of listening by the way the prose leaps off the page. A writer who knows how to listen is someone who studies the experts – the great writers and the great writing teachers – and learns from them all. She is someone who knows how to get past the sudden stab of feeling like a failure to find wisdom in the criticism of others.

And perhaps most importantly, she is someone who, long before putting a single word on the page, learns how to listen to the world around her. She learns about three-dimensional characters and realistic dialogue from listening to family, friends, strangers in a coffee shop. She learns about the power of silence by being silent herself. She learns about pacing and rhythm and tension and conflict from observing real life circumstances. She is someone who can be simultaneously engaged in a moment and pondering it. She doesn’t apply everything she discovers to her own writing, but she gives it all plenty of room to breathe before she decides what to use and what to discard.

Like the woman at my table, she too holds tight to her manuscript, but unlike her, this is not because she believes hers is a perfect child. The writer who has learned to listen holds tight to her manuscript because it is a mystery; a strong-willed puzzle of questions and answers and possibilities.

When she hands her manuscript to an editor, she gives him the result of good listening.

And then when he speaks, she listens some more.