Word of the Week: Otiose

Some of you might have noticed that lately, I have been a bit remiss in my Sunday Word of the Week posts. After all, three weeks have drifted by without a single new vocabulary word to satisfy your lexical cravings. I hope you’ll accept my apologies, especially because my inspiration for this week’s Word of the Week stems directly from my seemingly lax attitude.

This week’s Word of the Week is “otiose.” Dictionary.com defines the word first as “being at leisure; idle; indolent.” The second definition is “ineffective or futile.” The final is “superfluous or useless.” I certainly hope my behavior doesn’t qualify for the second or third definition, but I must admit it might be a good candidate for the first one.

Merriam-Webster.com places “otiose” in the bottom 50% of word popularity, and defines it as “producing no useful result” (guilty–at least in terms of Word of the Week posts); “being at leisure” (I plead the Fifth); and “lacking use or effect” (innocent–I’ve been doing lots of useful things… They just haven’t included my weekly vocabulary posts).

I suppose at the very least I could provide you an explanation for my otiose behavior. I am sure once you see the photographs below, you’ll not only completely understand, but also completely forgive, my slacking. (Though in all honesty, I can’t promise I won’t relapse in weeks to come, at least now and again.)

I failed to compose a July 10 Word of the Week post because I succeeded in spending several hours playing with a friend, my sister, her husband, my niece, and my nephew in the sun, sand, and surf in Florida. So, yes–it’s safe to say I was “at leisure; idle” that day.
I was nowhere to be found in the virtual world on July 17 because I was busy splashing around in the crisp (okay–freezing…!) waters of the Youghiogheny River Gorge in Ohiopyle (say it out loud; it’s fun) State Park in Pennsylvania with my sisters, their husbands and children, and my husband.

Now, for the first time in weeks, you have been linguistically empowered!

Recent Words of the Week





The Business Side of Writing: Record Keeping

In addition to the many writing techniques and skills I learned during my Master’s program in creative writing, I was introduced to the idea of a submissions spreadsheet. Although I had been submitting writing to contests and publishers as early as elementary school, when in fifth grade I entered (and won!) my first Young Authors competition, I was in my mid-twenties before it ever occurred to me to record my submission activities. Truth be told, it didn’t occur to me, exactly–a professor mentioned it in a course I was taking, and I thought: “Why didn’t I think of that?” And more, importantly: “Why haven’t I been doing that?” So, at the age of 25, fifteen years after beginning my publishing endeavors, I created a submissions spreadsheet using Microsoft Excel. Now, I keep it in two places: a flash drive in the original Excel file, and Google Sheets online.

What to Include in a Submissions Spreadsheet

At the very top of my spreadsheet appears the date I began keeping the record, in my case, September 21, 2009. Below, are categories of information I track.

Title of Work

The very first column in my file is the title of the piece. You may prefer to set up your record so that the first column lists a different detail of the work, but I find that the easiest way for me to quickly identify a work is by its title.


My second column lists the genre of the work–poem, novel, narrative essay, for example. This allows me to see which types of writing I have had the most success with, as well as which types I am most or least often submitting, or have most or least recently been submitting.

Submitted To

In the third column, I list the name of the agent, publisher, or publication to which I sent the work.

Date Submitted

The fourth column simply lists the date I submitted the work to the publisher, agent, or publication. Many publications will give you a time frame for when you can expect to hear back, 3-4 or 6-8 weeks, for example. If you know when you submitted work to them, you can also estimate when you can expect to hear back. As many agents and publications will respond only if they are interested in your work, knowing when the time frame has expired can be beneficial in letting you know when it is safe to send the piece elsewhere, especially when you are sending it to publications that may not allow simultaneous submissions.

Responds in…

My “Responds in…” column refers to how long I can expect to wait before hearing back from an agent, publisher, or publication, for example 3-4 weeks if interested, one month if interested, 6-8 weeks, etc. Knowing the date submitted as well as the “responds in,” or turnaround, time can help you determine when you should give up on a certain publisher, agent, or publication, and move on to other options.

If an agent, publisher, or publication responds, I return to this column and add the date I received the response and/or the amount of time that elapsed between my submission and the publisher’s/agent’s/publication’s response. This way, if I ever submit work to the same agent, publisher, or publication, I can estimate with even more accuracy when I might expect to hear back.


In this column, I track whether the piece was accepted for publication or not (I categorize pieces that were ignored as “rejected”). I have read of other writers who find the word “rejected” too harsh and discouraging, but I have found this whole writing business requires a tough skin, so if my writing is not accepted by an agent, publisher, or publication, I just call it what it is: rejected.

Date Published

If a piece of my writing is accepted for publication, I record the date it was published. This information comes in handy when updating my resume or my LinkedIn and Contently profiles, writing cover letters or query letters, or locating my work online. It also gives me an idea of when my dry spells and hot spells have been, allowing me to look for patterns and identify what factors might have led to publishing success in a certain time frame, but a lack of success in another.

Amount Earned

The last column of my spreadsheet details how much money, if any, I earned from a certain piece of writing. This can be helpful for tax purposes, budgeting purposes, etc.

You will need to decide what categories are most appropriate for your own submission spreadsheet based on your writing and your organizational style, but the above are some fundamental ones to consider in getting started. Others might include word-count or line-count, draft number, time elapsed from starting to finishing a piece, feedback received from publication/agent, etc.


Author Interview: Mary-Chris Escobar

orange door head on
Mary-Chris Escobar is a Richmond-based, self-published chick lit author.

My first impression of Mary-Chris Escobar came in the fall of 2015, when I attended a presentation she helped lead at the James River Writers Annual Conference. A few months later, as a co-worker and I labored to revive our school’s creative writing club and literary magazine, and I began to wonder what help might further motivate our teenage writers, I thought of Mary-Chris. How excited would these kids be to meet and talk to a real, live author–especially one as young, approachable, and encouraging as Ms. Escobar seemed to me? I sent her a quick e-mail, and was thrilled when she quickly responded and accepted my invitation. This past February, her presentation was a huge hit at one of our creative writing club meetings; we even had several non-members attend. Below is my recent interview with Richmond-based, self-published chick lit author, Mary-Chris Escobar.

Mind The Dog: Tell me about your genre, chick lit, and how you became interested in writing it.

Mary-Chris Escobar: Ah! I said that next time I got asked this question, I was just going to quote Phoebe Fox’s answer in this interview, because it’s basically perfect. I became interested in chick lit in the early 2000s, which was sort of the height of it’s popularity. At the time where there were a lot of books being written about women who seemed to be in sole pursuit of a husband, while loathing their jobs, living in New York and obsessing over really expensive shoes. However, while those stories seemed to become synonymous with the term “chick lit,” they were never the books I was drawn to. I like the first-person narrated books that shared a woman’s journey to finding her own strength and sense-of-self, independent of a romantic relationship. Sure there were relationships, but they weren’t the sole focus. There was also humor and wit to the stories– a certain, lightness, if you will. This is what drew me to the genre, and how I still define it today.

MTD: How many novels have you written?

MCE: I’ve written two full-length novels (Neverending Beginnings and How To Be Alive) and two novellas (Delayed and How To Fall).

MTD: Where do you typically find inspiration for your novels?

MCE: For me, stories always seem to grow out of a “what if” question. My first novel, Neverending Beginnings, opens with the main character giving a terrible, drunken toast at her best friend’s wedding (think admitting to dating the groom and then passing out). I wrote a version of this opening scene years ago in a writing class. I had given a lackluster and way-too-short toast at a wedding once, so I used that as a jumping off point to write a scene based around “what if that had gone terribly wrong.” Later I did a significant rewrite of the novel to include the structure of the main character repeating the same week over and over (like the movie Groundhog Day), and it was the same idea: what if you got stuck in a time loop and had to repeat the same week over and over with no idea why it was happening or how to stop it.

MTD: Of your novels, which are you proudest of/most satisfied with and why?

MCE: I think I’m always most satisfied with whatever I wrote most recently. I originally released Neverending Beginnings as an ebook only. Last year I released the paperback. I’m still very proud of the novel, and love the characters and story, but when I was re-reading parts of it during that process, I can certainly see how I’ve grown and changed as a writer. That being said, I’m probably most proud of my current work in progress.

MTD: So you have a book in the works? Tell me about it.

MCE: I do! I’m currently working on my third novel. The working title is Forty Days Of Forgetting. It’s an “after the happily ever after” story about a couple whose relationship is strained by their very huge, very different dreams. He’s a struggling musician and she’s working on her Ph.D. They break up at the beginning of the story and she develops this elaborate plan to forget him. Which doesn’t work so well.

MTD: How long does a novel usually take you to write, from initial idea to publication?

MCE: My experience with my two novels was really, really different. I wrote Neverending Beginnings very, very slowly (over the course of several years) for fun when I was in grad school. I then did a significant rewrite, submitted to an agent, and then completed another significant rewrite (adding in the repeating week structure). She pitched the novel to editors and was unable to find a home for it. I self-published it some years later in 2012. All in, that book was probably six or seven years from idea to publication.

I had written a super rough draft of  How To Be Alive when Neverending Beginnings was being shopped to editors. I significantly rewrote it, and it took about a year and a half from that rewrite though critique and multiple rounds of editing to publication.

I’m a little more consistent with the novellas. They both took about six to nine months from idea through editing to publication. However, they are not published in paperback, and are about characters from my novels; the character development is already done and the publishing is less time intensive.

MTD: What do you enjoy (or not!) about the writing and self-publishing process?

MCE: I love creating characters and learning about their stories. I’m a “pants-er,” meaning I “fly by the seat of my pants” and don’t plot out my novels. I have a question/problem/scenario that sparks the story and then a general idea where I think it may go, but I don’t plan every twist and turn. As a result I learn all these things about my character as I go and often all these other fun things start to appear: the sarcastic and wise retired English professor, the two friends who are in love with each other and don’t know it yet. As a child, I loved “playing pretend” and in so many ways I view writing as doing exactly the same thing, in a more socially- acceptable-for-adults format.

As for publishing. I think I like the artistry of it. The concept of actually laying out pages and creating a book. I like the control to chose my covers and what fonts I’d like to use for section breaks. The business side of publishing, the actual selling and marketing of my books, is basically continual education. There is always something new, always something else to try. It’s easy to get bogged down in all this. For me it’s been really healthy to look at it as an experiment: what works, what doesn’t, what used to work- but not so much anymore. Rinse and repeat.

MTD: You have a full-time job. How do you make sure to find time to write, publish, keep up with social media, etc.?

MCE: I’m not great at it. In fact sometimes, I’m actually pretty terrible. How long did it take to get this interview done? I always wish I had a really pretty answer to this question– something about schedules and planners and morning pages. But I don’t. I make a commitment to writing every week and I typically write in the evenings after work or on weekends. When I’m nearing the end of the story and can see the finish line, I’ll often pull some late nights–eager to get the words out, but all other times, I’ll prioritize sleep over staying up to make sure I hit a certain word count or something like that.

As for the business/promotion stuff: I’ve been blogging weekly for a long time now, and that’s just something that’s integrated into my weekly schedule. I’ll work on it a bit in the morning and typically finish it on Tuesday nights. Sometimes I’ll try to carve out some weekend time when I have a more in-depth post like my monthly book and beer pairing (Books & Brews). And sometimes I slog it out on a Wednesday night at midnight, if I’m being really honest.

I try to use my lunch break and other natural down time for other social media. This isn’t a perfect science. And I’ll admit to sometimes going pretty silent. I am a big believer in picking social media that you’re comfortable with and not feeling the need to try every new thing. I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and Instagram a little. No plans to Snapchat and I refuse to join Pinterest –because I know I would just always, always fall down a rabbit hole of pretty food pictures.

All that to say, I really believe there is no one right way to do this. There will be seasons for everything. Seasons when you are an amazing writer. Seasons when you are an amazing other-job-that-pays-the bills person. Seasons where you are an amazing spouse/child/parent/caregiver. I think we have to give up the expectation of always being amazing at all of them simultaneously. It’s too much.

MTD: What do you like about writing, and how did you discover your love for writing?

MCE: As I mentioned before, writing feels like “playing pretend” as an adult — so I really think my love of it started as a child running around my house making up stories with my stuffed animals. That being said, I wandered through a number of creative outlets before realizing writing was the best match. I’ve got a bunch of theater and studio art credits on my college transcript to prove this. I was always told I was a good writer, and in high school I wrote really dramatic poetry–but it wasn’t until I took a class in fiction writing at a local arts center (Visual Arts Center, in Richmond, Virginia) in my late twenties that I really discovered that writing was my thing.

MTD: Who is your favorite author and what is your favorite book? Why?

MCE: There are so many wonderful, wonderful, books–it’s always completely impossible for me to pick one, so here are a few: Megan Crane’s English As A Second Language was the book that kicked off my love of lighthearted women’s fiction. I related to the main character in a way that made me wonder if I might have a story to tell and if the “right” way for me to tell it might be in first person narrative. Meg Cabot’s Queen Of Babble series are the books I’ve re-read the most. They are my go-to “comfort” reads–the oatmeal raisin cookies of books. On the nonfiction side, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic fell into my hands at exactly the right time and has been really inspiring, as did Amanda Palmer’s The Art Of Asking (because the Fraud Police are real, folks).

MTD: What is your favorite literary device?

MCE: I don’t know if it’s technically considered a literary device– but I love a little twist of magical realism in a book. Allison Winn Scotch’s Time Of My Life is one of my favorite books of all time (see, I told you I would forget something in that last question about favorite books). The main character is thrust back in time and finds out how her life would have turned out had she made different decisions. Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke’s books also always have great examples of this, like The Status Of All Things, where the main character’s Facebook posts start to come true–so great!

MTD: What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?

MCE: Write.

It’s really, really, easy to get caught up in the publication talk. Do you indie publish or traditionally publish? How do you write the best query letter/back-cover copy? Which agents are looking for what, and who’s the best match for you and your book? How do I get featured on BookBub? Does that even matter?

There are thousands of questions about the business stuff. There always will be. But here’s the thing–none of them matter until you have something to sell. So please, write your book. Not someone else’s book. Not the book your parents wish you’d write. Not the trendy thing you know would sell. Not the one that would get you into an MFA program. Write YOUR book. The one you aren’t sure anyone wants to read, but that you must write. The one that wakes you up at night, and won’t let you peacefully enjoy that long car ride/walk to work until you tell it. Write that. Then worry about the rest.

Mind the Dog Writing Blog thanks Mary-Chris Escobar for being so generous with her time and participating in this interview.

Rookie Mistakes that Ruin your Writing

As a high school English teacher and literary magazine co-sponsor; former yearbook advisor; graduate of a Master’s writing program; occasional participant in writing workshops and critique groups; occasional freelance proofreader; and occasional writing tutor, I have read writing at all its stages, from rough draft to final draft, and writers at all their stages, from novice to better-than-I’ll-ever-be. Today, as I read through some work for a writing group and reflect on student work I read during the school year, I realized there are five common mistakes writers make, whether they are newbies, or seasoned writers working on an early draft. Here they are, so you can look out for them in your own early drafts.

Inconsistent Tense

I am not sure why writers make this mistake. Perhaps we are simply thinking too quickly and writing too slowly, resulting in a lapse of attention to detail. Perhaps we have simply stepped away from a piece for a while, and upon returning, forget what tense we were originally employing. Whatever causes it, even expert writers often commit this literary sin in their early drafts. Sometimes in the same paragraph, a writer will randomly switch from, for example, past tense to present tense. He will stick with present tense for a sentence, maybe a few, and then, for no apparent reason, revert back to the original past tense.

The good news is, this is a fairly easy mistake to correct. My advice would be not to worry too terribly much about tense in your initial draft, but be sure to pay attention to it as you revise. Make sure that you pick a tense, and stick with it. Granted, if you employ, for example, a flashback, that part of your tale will need to be written in some form of the past tense, but the main story-line should employ one, consistent tense.

Unnatural Dialog

Often, my students approach me with their own, personal writing projects and request that I read them and offer feedback. I am always very honored when a student trusts me with her writing, because I know how scary asking for feedback can be–doing so leaves a writer pretty vulnerable. When I do read students’ work, one of the most common mistakes I see is unnatural dialog, in two forms: 1) all the characters speak in the same manner, regardless of their age, gender, race, background, education, etc. and 2) the characters say things that, simply put, almost no one would ever really say–they are too formal or too stilted or otherwise unrealistic.

While correcting this issue is not as simple as fixing inconsistent tense, it can, of course, be done. A few pieces of advice:

  1. Listen to real people. Listen to how they speak–the cadences different groups use; the vocabulary they employ; the rhythms and colloquialisms and pronunciations. Then, use these observations to inform the way your characters speak.

  2. Read your dialog aloud, and listen carefully to how it sounds. Better yet, assign characters to real people and read the dialog together. Is it natural? Can you tell the characters apart simply by what each one says and how he or she says it? Ask yourself: Would someone really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, then ask yourself: Would this character really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, way to go.

  3. Make sure every character speaks a language unique to his or her personality, background, education level, gender, age, etc. While a white, male professor and his twenty-something, white, male student might both speak English, they are going to use very different sentence structures, different jargon and slang, etc. Consider these differences, and respect them.

Clichéd Characters

Unless you’re writing an allegory, your characters should be dynamic (unless you have a literary purpose for keeping them static), complex, and developed. They should have motives, fears, dreams, secrets, pasts. For a hero to be completely good and a villain to be completely evil is not only too simple, but unrealistic. Make sure your characters are just that: characters. They should have quirks, pet peeves, unique personalities, motives, and flaws. Consider what makes every character tick. Avoid using characters as mere plot tools. I have heard various methods for making sure your characters are well-developed, believable, realistic, and relate-able. Here are just a few:

  1. Hold an imaginary conversation with each character. Simply begin with something like, “Hey, Marissa, how ya feelin’ today?” or “Marsha, what’s on your mind today?” Then, let them speak to you. And listen.

  2. Write a letter to your character, and then write a response from him or her in his or her voice.

  3. Write a backstory for each character, including information such as family history, education, geography and location, job history, likes and dislikes, talents, fears, dreams, pets, etc.

  4. Describe a character’s favorite outfit and explain why that’s her favorite outfit.

  5. Describe a character’s dream car and explain why that’s his dream car.

  6. Describe each character–even minor characters–from another character’s perspective, or from multiple other characters’ perspectives.

  7. Tell a chapter of the story (or, if it’s a short story, the whole story) from each character’s perspective. What you learn about your characters might surprise you.

Weak Words

I tell my students to avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • great
  • amazing
  • nice
  • good
  • bad
  • stuff
  • things
  • have/has and other “to-be” verbs

The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.

Inconsistent Perspectives

First, you need to decide if you will tell your story in first, second, or third person. Then, you need to make sure you remain true to that choice. For example, if you elect to utilize a first-person narrator, you must remember that the narrator knows only his own thoughts, motives, and emotions. He might be able to guess at the thoughts or emotions of other characters, or assume or interpret things about them–but he cannot know, and he cannot narrate like he knows. For example, Mark Twain elected to tell The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the first-person perspective of the character of Huck Finn. Huck Finn cannot tell us what Jim is thinking or feeling–unless Jim tells him. Huck Finn cannot tell us how his Pap feels about him–unless Pap tells him. He can tell us what he might believe the other characters think or feel, but he cannot get inside their heads or hearts. For another example, I was recently reading a writer’s rough draft of a short essay. The writer was looking at a photograph a friend had posted on social media, and started describing to readers what the friend had been thinking about and remembering when he had posted the photograph. Unless the photograph was captioned with that information, how could the writer possibly have known what the friend had been thinking or feeling? The writer had written sentences to the effect of: “Michael started thinking about the past–the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. He promised himself to be a better father, a better man.” Suddenly, the writer was somehow in Michael’s head, which is, of course, impossible, and inconsistent with the first-person perspective of the story. In a case like this, the writer has two choices, as I see it: 1) Cut it. The narrator cannot tell us what he or she does not know. 2) Fix it. Let us know these are the narrator’s thoughts. The example above could be remedied like this: “I think about Michael and what made him post that picture. I imagine him thinking about all the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. Maybe he promised himself to be a better father, a better man. Maybe it was motivation–a reminder of what not to do, who not to be.” Now, we are in the narrator’s head, not Michael’s.

Word of the Week: Apricate

The word “apricate” seems like an apt one for the Fourth of July holiday weekend, when many of us will celebrate our nation’s independence by, among other festivities, heading to the beach (at least in my neck of the woods). In fact, I seized an opportunity to apricate yesterday–I do it all summer long, actually–and didn’t even know that’s what I was doing. You probably do, too. I came across the word today while perusing Dictionary.com, where I happened across a slideshow called “Rise and Shine: 9 Sunny Words.” “Apricate” appeared on the very first slide, and is brand new to me.

It’s a verb meaning “to bask in the sun,” or “to tan.” Many people I know refer to this activity as “laying out.”

When I first saw the word, I was reminded of the word “apricot,” which Dictionary.com was quick to point out actually bears no etymological relation to “apricate.” In my experience, however, they are related: I ate an apricot while I apricated (though I honestly don’t know if the past tense of “apricate” is “apricated”) yesterday afternoon.

Above: One of my favorite places to apricate is Pony Pasture on the James River. Below left: One my dogs apricates on our back deck. Below right: The view I have from the lounge chair (pictured left) when I apricate on my back deck.

Now, go forth! You have been linguistically empowered!

Recent Words of the Week




Query Letters and Pitches: The Dos and Don’ts

Whenever you tell people you’re writing or have written a novel, they are (usually) instantly impressed. But if you’ve written or are writing a novel, then you know: Writing the novel was the easy part. Writing your query letter and crafting your pitch are infinitely more daunting tasks. The truly impressive achievement would be boiling your novel down to its core, to explain its marketability, significance, and plot in roughly one page–and so effectively that an agent, who has thousands of writers clamoring for his attention, decides he wants to devote it to you and your work. Because I truly do find writing a one-page query letter and delivering a 60- to 90-second pitch much more difficult than writing and revising a 110,000-word novel, I recently attended an Agile Writers of Richmond event called Beyond Agile Writers: The Elevator Pitch with Shanelle Calvin. Below are my takeaways.

Query Letters and Pitches: The Dos

  1. Know your audience. Research the agent(s) you plan to address. Know the genres they prefer to read, know their basic background information. One concept Ms. Calvin reiterated was that if you want agents to invest in you, you have to show you are willing to invest–and have invested–in them. (See “Don’t #1”)
  2. Be authentic. Your tone, whether during a pitch or within a query letter, should be the tone of the novel and the tone of your brand. Make sure this tone is consistent on your social media platforms, as well.
  3. Show, don’t tell. Through social media followings, reviews of your work, author recommendations, the tone of your letter and/or pitch, and strong verbs, prove your book is marketable.
  4. Be clear and specific. If you are sending a query letter via e-mail, make sure that both the e-mail’s subject line and the body of the e-mail clearly communicate that the purpose of your message is to query. Including the word “query” in your subject line is advisable.
  5. Follow the directions. Every agent to whom you send work will have different requirements. Some will request the first ten pages of the manuscript to be e-mailed with the query in an attachment. Others might instruct you to send the first twenty pages of the manuscript in the body of the e-mail, below the query. Make sure you carefully review what each individual agent requires, and follow those directions scrupulously.
  6. Provide a comparison. If you believe your work resembles the works of a well-known author, point out the similarity. For example, you might say something like, “In a novel comparable to the works of Mitch Albom…,” or “In a piece reminiscent of Fried Green Tomatoes…,” or “In the spirit of works such as…” (See Don’t #2)
  7. Be visible and present. On social media that is. You want agents to be able to find you. Whether you use LinkedIn, Facebook, Snapchat, Periscope; whether you maintain a blog or a website or both; it is important that agents can find you, as well as any works you may already have published. If you do maintain a blog or a website, directing an agent to it in your query can be helpful, provided it is relevant to the work you are pitching. (See Don’t #6)
  8. Dress the part. If you have a meeting or an appointment at a conference to pitch your novel, present yourself professionally. While wearing a suit and tie may not be consistent with your brand, and such a formal outfit may not be necessary, it is important to dress in a respectful, appropriate manner that will leave a positive impression. (See Don’t #7)
  9. Compel a response with a call to action. Make sure to end your pitch or query letter with a call to action. If the agent does not request a portion of the manuscript to be sent in with the query, for example, you might close with, “May I send you the first chapter of my manuscript?” If the agent’s query requirements already request a sample from the manuscript, you might close with something like, “I hope you will provide some feedback on my work.” Alternatively, you could close with questions you have for the agent. Anything that begs a response is helpful in maintaining the communication, and in letting an agent know what your ideal next steps would be.
  10. Include credentials. If you are a member of writing clubs or organizations, let agents know. If you have other work published, let agents know. If you have a degree in creative writing or have received a fellowship or other honors, let agents know.
  11. Include the conflict. Make sure the query or pitch clearly communicates your protagonists’ desire, as well as the obstacles to achieving that desire.
  12. Include statistics. Be sure to (accurately!) include the genre, target audience, and word count of your novel.

Query Letters and Pitches: The Don’ts

  1. Send a form letter, or send the exact same letter to multiple agents. Too often, this can result in errors fatal to your novels’ chances at publication. For example, you might remember to change the recipient’s name in the salutation of the letter, but forget that you mentioned names later in the query. Where you refer to the agent by his correct name in your greeting, later you address him as a woman–another agent to whom you sent the same query.
  2. Make outlandish and pompous claims and comparisons. While it may be acceptable to compare your work or your writing style to those of well-known authors (providing you are accurate), it is unwise (if not entirely delusional) to declare something like, “I am the next John Steinbeck” or “My book is a bestseller.”
  3. Be impatient. Most agents will give you a timeline during which you can expect to hear back from them, such as within 6-8 weeks. Let the amount of time they ask for elapse before you follow up.
  4. Be careless. Spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and poor grammar do not bode well for someone claiming to have written a marketable novel.
  5. Be long-winded. The art of both the pitch and the query lies in brevity (which is why I have not yet mastered either). You do not want to give too much away by including every detail, nor do you want to run over your allotted time during an appointment or meeting, or compose too lengthy a query letter. Any of these errors can make you seem unprepared, disorganized, and inconsiderate.
  6. Include links to irrelevant social media. While making an agent aware of your blog or website if it is consistent with your brand or pertinent to the subject matter of your work is helpful, directing them to your personal Facebook profile where you post mainly pictures of your dog is probably not helpful (unless, of course, you are pitching a book about dogs, or veterinary science, or some similar subject).
  7. Wear jeans and a T-shirt to pitch your novel. Even if your brand is casual, you want to avoid coming off as careless, sloppy, or amateur. If you want to remain consistent with a casual brand, think business casual: khakis and a polo with boat shoes, perhaps, for men.

Now, all that said, I am off to find out if I can practice what I preach by attempting to condense my nearly 110,000-word novel into a one-page query letter! I wish you happy writing (which should be easy) and happy querying (if that isn’t an oxymoron).