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.]