Avoiding the Terrible Awful

August 3, 2016

Whenever I go to writer’s conferences, the question usually arises; “What’s the absolute worst thing an author can do?”

Oh. The mind boggles.

I’m usually the one on the panel who urges my synapses to fire more quickly so I can go back through the many years of some of the more interesting WTF-ery that has flown across my desk. And truthfully, my brain rebels because I’d rather concentrate on all the right things to do.


There is one little thing that busts my chops every time because it’s just so absolutely horrible. It’s the query letter that doesn’t tell me anything about the manuscript, but instead asks for advice. Could I please talk a bit about my company and what we’re looking for? Could I please state how I want the query to look? Then I’m told the author “isn’t really a writer,” but, oh gosh, the story is JUST SO GOOD, that it’ll sell a bajillion books. Everyone who’s read the manuscript says so.


There is the “new writer” and then there’s the “hopelessly lost, out-of-the-zip-code writer.” It’s so achingly incredible that anyone in 2016 can be this lost. This goes beyond living on Writer’s Island. This is more like living under a rock.

I realize this is an extreme case of the Terrible Awful (thank you, Minnie Jackson) – but the fact that it still happens is worrisome. And of course, there are varying degrees of the Terrible Awful, and there is a very simple solution: Pretend this is a job interview.

The gods would toss down lighting bolts if you went into a job interview and ask the boss to tell them about their company and their guidelines…all the while telling them absolutely zip about you. It would go back to that getting laughed out of the zip code thing. If you want a job, then you make sure to put your best foot forward.

There is no reason for me to reply to a “query” such as this, so the author has blown the one chance they had with me. So think about your own query; is there a compelling reason for an agent or editor to reply in the positive…let alone reply at all? Does your query detail your main character? Does it focus on the heartbeat of your story and highlight what’s at risk? Does the tone of your query match the tone of the writing in the manuscript? I’ve seen any number of queries that insist the story is a comedy, yet the writing is somber and the storyline is anything but amusing.

Most importantly, have you written your query then walked away from it for a while? Did you let others read it and ask them if it’s written in a fashion that makes them want to read more?

Don’t be the Terrible Awful. Be the Holy-Margaritas-I-Gotta-Have-This!

Ringin’ in the New Year – helpful query hints

January 2, 2011

I’m always hopeful that with every new year, writers are that much wiser and careful about their writing careers. In order to help with that endeavor, I’ll share a few of the query blunders that slid into my Inbox while I was out drinking champagne…

Calling Google…where are you?

If your query lists your accomplishments, then it makes sense that I should be able to find them, yes? If you’re as fabo as you attest, then I would expect you to include a link to your website. What? You don’t have one? How can you be a:

  • Motivational speaker
  • Community leader
  • Public figure

and not have a website or blog? People with platforms have these things. If I find zippo on google, then all your insistence that “yah, I’m all that” melts the ice in my margarita. After all, if I can’t find you, then how does your public find you? Your future readers?

Learn before you leap

The dreaded query letter…so much hinges on so little, and it’s so easy to earn a very quick rejection letter based on how you communicate your story. Or lack, thereof.


  • I’m a new writer. Not only is this unnecessary, but it could work against you because we’ve learned that new oftentimes means a glaring lack of understanding how to write a proper query. So we’re wary.
  • I attached my synopsis. NO. Do not attach anything unless you’ve been directed to do so. Many people won’t open attachments. Your pitch is short, and it belongs in the body of your email.
  • Reply to a rejection. Argh. Please sit on your fingers until the urge passes. The rejection letter went out, we’ve moved on. This isn’t an invitation to open a dialog, and it certainly isn’t an offer to send pages. I rejected an author yesterday for her lack of a coherent pitch, and she replied that she sent her synopsis (yes, I know…it was less than stellar). She decided that I needed to read her first four chapters. This is headbangy stuff that screams noob. As rude as it sounds, I really don’t need (or care) about the reasons why or how you blew your query. If I offered some insight in my rejection letter, cool. Move on and be smarter the next time. But you can keep me out of the loop. Really.
  • Can I rewrite my query and resend? I know there are differing opinions on this. Some agents/editors have no problem with authors asking if they can fix up their query and resend. If a story sounds interesting, I’ll contact the author and ask for more detail. Otherwise, a no is a no. And it goes back to that “a rejection letter isn’t an invitation to open up a dialog.” I’d suggest that you take your time, learn how to write a bang-on query. Go jump in the shark tank at Query Shark and do it right. If you have a fabulous query, go ahead and resend. You don’t need to ask permission.


  • Follow the submission guidelines.

Be clear…clue me in

I know you know your story. But. I. Don’t. Help a gal out, willya? I don’t need clever, I don’t need esoteric, I don’t need wandering diatribe. I need only one thing – what your story is about. It should always include:

Who’s your protagonist?
What does he/she want?

What’s keeping him/her from getting it?
What choice/decision does he face?
What terrible thing will happen if he chooses A; what terrible thing will happen if he doesn’t.

An incomplete pitch is the #1 reason for rejection.


With the exception of a poorly written pitch, the biggest problem I see is the author who writes in a heavily impacted category and has no clue that he’s facing some very stiff competition.

New writers tend to be very insular; they battle some affliction or another (cancer, depression, alcoholism, weight issues, etc.) and decide that the world MUST read their story. The problem is that they have no clue that the libraries and bookstores are FILLED with these stories, and that their stories invariably say the same things that hundreds of other books have already said.

I’m ok with a book written in an impacted category provided the author has the platform to back him up. As lousy as it feels, a platform is the only way to get that book noticed. It’s like wearing school uniforms. Everyone looks the same, yet there’s always someone who wears an outrageous pair of socks or hair-do in order to stand out.

If you’re gonna write about weight issues or cancer – or any theme that’s been heavily written, you better have one hell of a hook and a platform that will catch a large readership because I guarantee that readers of an impacted category are better read than you. You have to deliver a unique message, and that means that you can’t be insulated.

You. Must. Know. Your. Competition.

Word Count/Genre

I’m amazed at the number of writers who forget to include this info. It’s as important as your pitch. I’ve lost count of the times I was interested in a story only to find out it was 35,000 words. Yikes.

Fiction/Nonfiction – thar be a difference

Now stop it, I see you rolling your collective eyes. Just yesterday I read a query that stated up front that it was a memoir, but later down the page, it stated it was the author’s first novel. Eh? Whazzat? Which is it? Memoir or fiction?

A novel is fiction.

This means that you don’t say “fiction novel.” It’s like saying you bought an automobile car. Makes me do a double take, and Cosmic Muffin knows I do that enough during the day.

So those are my New Year’s gifties. May your plots be rich and your characters three-dimensional. Go forth and be successful!

General Service Announcement

October 1, 2008

We interrupt our daily insanity to bring some housekeeping chores to the forefront in hopes of creating world peace, a strong economy, and better tasting Twinkies.

If you query anyone, do yourself a favor and email from the address where you would like to receive replies. See, we tend to hit the ‘Reply’ button and this, “Don’t email me at this address, use the other one I have listed here instead” is unprofessional.

Keep in mind that you approached us, so it’s a rotten idea to begin making demands when we haven’t even had our first dance.

Your first contact with an agent or editor is your business card. How you present yourself is the same as a job interview. Beginning that face time by making special requests isn’t a wise decision.

Sigh. I want a brief bio. Period. Deal with it. I don’t care if you find my request baffling or irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if you feel my reading your bio will make your manuscript intriguing or not. It’s not your choice to make.

It would be a dimwitted agent or publisher indeed who would reject or not consider a sensational manuscript simply because a person’s biographical information did not meet some undefined and arbitrary criteria which exists only in the agent/publishers imagination.

For one thing, nothing we do is arbitrary. I’ll cop to having a great imagination, but not when it comes to deciding upon the sea worthiness of a manuscript. Those decisions are based on hard, cold calculation. And yes, actually many agents and editors have dumped terrific works based on the biographical information. If I have a something promising but it entails strong promotional support from the author to garner effective demand, but they are busy sitting home watching the soapies, then, you bet, I have to move on. Being an author these days does not consist of “If I write it, they will come.”

And don’t call me dimwitted. You don’t sit in my chair. You don’t answer to my submissions team. And you certainly don’t write the checks and take all the risk.

Um. Include one. This is helpful. Don’t offer to send your first chapter instead of a synopsis. If I wanted the first chapter, I’d ask for it. Really. I’m good that way. But before I’m willing to make that first date with you, I have to know what the dang story is about.

Avoid wasting your entire query telling me things like this…

there is no way I can begin to capture what the book is in a couple of paragraphs

…and give only the vaguest of descriptions like,

“this will resonate with baby boomers.”

I’m sorry, I left my tinfoil hat at home and am unable to divine what this means.

You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression, so use your query letter wisely. Don’t take up precious time giving me reasons why I should love your work. Tell me what your story is about so I can figure that out on my own. Trust me, I won’t take your word for it.

Please don’t tell me something will “resonate.” Sorry. This particular word makes my eye twitch. It’s just a personal thing. Ok, if you do use it, I promise not to hate you. Much.

And this ends our Public Service Announcement for today. Stay tuned…

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