I’m Conflicted

I have been doing A LOT of online pitch conferences lately. Every time I do one, I think “I really need to write a blog about conflict” but then it gets pushed to the side for more pressing issues.

So I am borderline thrilled to finally be writing this blog. Hopefully, you like it too. 🙂

Though my inspiration comes from verbal pitches, this advice applies to query letters, Twitter pitches and even manuscripts.

There are two types of conflict in a novel: external and internal. The external conflict is how the plot unfolds, the physical actions of your characters, and the ways they’re acted on by the outside world. It drives your plot arc. The internal conflict is your protagonist’s mental or emotional motivations, how they feel about the world around them and the other characters, and what they want for themselves. It drives your character arc. Both are essential in a novel. Depending on what type of novel you’re writing, one may be more important than the other. Commercial fiction tends to be more plot-driven, so the external conflict is more likely to take center stage. Literary fiction tends to be more character and writing-driven, so the internal conflict needs to be well-articulated.

The challenge in pitching (and writing) is making sure both conflicts come across. If you only focus on one, the story will feel imbalanced.

External conflict pitfalls and solutions

Most often the pitches I see that focus primarily on external conflict fall into genres that work with action-driven stories, like thrillers or fantasy. An FBI agent needs to stop a killer before he kills again. A warrior princess must stop an evil warlord from using magic to take over the world. On the surface level, it seems obvious why these characters act the way they do in your book. It’s an FBI agent’s job to catch killers. It’s obvious to the warrior princess (and the reader) that evil doers must be stopped.

The potential pitfall of these types of conflicts is that there are oodles of other books in the market with similar conflicts. So having a protagonist whose character shows depth and nuance makes all the difference in the world.

Give your characters additional motivations to make them feel well-rounded. Perhaps the FBI agent’s life is falling apart, and she needs to catch this killer to keep her job and make herself feel better about the choices she’s made in her personal life. (But watch out for clichés, like the FBI agent coming out of retirement to solve a case that’s personal to her.) Perhaps the warrior princess grew up never believing in the power of her own magic (because she was scolded by her mother when she tried to use it), and she needs to harness this power to stop the evil warlord.

But don’t just stop there, keep drilling down, adding more detail to fill out your character’s backstory. This can help drive the action as well. The FBI agent could decide to attend her nephew’s baseball game to make up for not being there for her family, and she could lose an opportunity to catch the killer (which would make her more likely to lose her job). The warrior princess could attempt to use her magic in a way that seems to make a situation worse for someone else (which would make her question the value of her magic all the more, and make it harder for her to finally accept that only her magic can stop the warlord).

If you’re just starting to write your book, you could spend some time brainstorming about your characters before you get going. If you’ve already written your book, you can still brainstorm, and then add new scenes and revise existing scenes in a way that shows character development.

Internal conflict pitfalls and solutions

Even though I prefer character-driven books, a book that’s almost all internal conflict with very little happening externally can be difficult to sell. Often the book is about the character coming to terms with something—a death, a move, an end of a relationship, a difficult moment in their life. There are a lot of ways in which a conflict like this could lead to a really interesting plot. And yet, I see and hear pitches all the time that stop with this. When I ask (during verbal pitches) where the book goes from there, the authors often answer with more internal language (the character feels this, the character realizes this). What I want to know is how this internal state manifests itself in the external world. What does the character do as a result of that emotion and how can that create an active and compelling plot?

Sometimes I’ll get a pitch where the characters take action, but it’s not action that has a sense of conflict. For instance, a woman struggling to overcome the end of her marriage moves back in with her parents and decides to plant a vegetable garden. The vegetable garden might lead to some internal healing, but what is happening in the book while this healing takes place? If the book is just her gardening and thinking about her marriage, the writing would have to be absolutely spectacular, and even then, it could be a tough sell. If someone is stealing her vegetables before she can enjoy them, there’s an external conflict she can explore that ties into her internal conflict.

Another possible way to take your internal conflict and add an external component is to shift your thinking from “how” to “if.” Instead of being a story about how she adjusts to a new town, make the story about if she’ll be able to adjust to a new town. The shift from “how” to “if” immediately adds tension because it presents the option that she may not be able to do it. It gives the reader a question that they will turn the pages to find out (assuming you add a lot of specifics that show why adjusting will be hard for her externally as well as internally). “How” has the assumption built into it that she will adjust, so there’s no question there.

And of course, try to avoid clichés when talking about internal conflict, such as the character learning to love themself. These kinds of internal conflicts are universal, but they’re too abstract, and they’ve been done so many times that they don’t show what’s unique about your book. It’s often through detail and specificity that character comes through, so try to evolve your internal conflict beyond the abstract and expected.

The level of internal and external conflict that’s right for your book will vary depending on the premise and genre. But hopefully, this gives you some ideas on how to be less (more?) conflicted while you’re writing.


The 6 Most Common Reasons I Turn Down Historical Fiction

I love historical fiction. I love being transported to a time and place so different from my own, and forgetting about the world for awhile. While any great novel can do this, there’s something about historical fiction that takes this escapism to another level, at least for me.

I get a lot of historical fiction submissions that don’t achieve this immersive quality, and it’s usually for one of a few reasons. So, without further ado, here are the six most common reasons I turn down historical fiction.

1. Voice is too stilted and formal to be relatable.
Anyone who’s read 18th or 19th century literary can tell you that people used to speak much more formally than they do now. They were more likely to use big words (even in dialogue) and complex sentence structures. There was a layer of politeness and decorum in how writers expressed the simplest of ideas.

So many well-meaning contemporary writers try to mimic this formality when they write historical fiction. The problem is that today’s average historical fiction reader has different tastes than readers of earlier centuries. With all the lovely distractions of our modern world, attention spans have shrunk, and readers are less eager to wade through the heavy prose of Charles Dickens or Henry James. They want something more immediate and accessible.

While your historical characters should not use contemporary slang, there is a way to use some period-appropriate language AND keep the voice fresh and relatable to modern readers. Philippa Gregory has perfected this balance. I highly recommend her books to anyone who’s unsure how to approach the voice in a historical novel. Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Dan Simmons also do a great job. Their books feel undeniably appropriate for their time period, and yet the language they use doesn’t bog down the reader with SAT words.

2. Characters are distant and unrelatable.
One reason a character can be unrelatable is too formal of a voice. The Victorians were very good at hiding their emotions behind prim, abstract expressions. If you try to mimic this tone in your book, the reader will have an equally hard time understanding your characters’ innermost feelings, and your characters will come off as emotionally distant and unrelatable.

I also see plenty of submissions where the time period feels so far removed from the present that the characters are unrecognizable. There’s nothing to them. I see this most often with books set in the far distant past, like ancient Greece or Rome. What I think this ultimately comes down to is the author not taking the time to establish the character. It’s sort of like the author wanted to write about this time period, but couldn’t imagine what everyday life would be like for the characters, and so the author just focused on the major historical events. These books typically open with a discussion about battle preparations or how to please the king. We don’t learn many specifics about the protagonist, he could literally be anyone. As a result, it feels like every other book about this time period. It’s missing the specificity that character depth can bring to a novel. And it hasn’t shown me a new side of the time period than what I can find in a history textbook.

3. Sense of place and time isn’t immersive enough.
Historical fiction relies on rich details that bring the setting to life. This can be sensory descriptions about the location of your story (the stink of garbage in Victorian London, the thickness of smog from the factories), but it can also be the foods your characters eat, the clothes they wear, the jobs they hold, the way they parent their children, and so on. Setting is more than location, it’s the minutia of everyday life. So if the author gives only a surface level description of setting, it won’t anchor the reader in the time period and place. You don’t want your historical novel to feel like it could’ve taken place anywhere at any time. You want those historical details to give specificity and uniqueness to your story.

4. Relies too heavily on the social mores of the time.
Let me tell you a story about a woman who wanted more for herself. Her family thinks all a woman is capable of is raising children and maintaining a house. They’re looking to marry her off to an appropriate gentleman. But she doesn’t want to get married. She wants to be independent and have her own career. She wants to have her own life. What book am I talking about? ALL OF THEM. I could probably name a hundred historical novels with this plot, yet I continue to receive submissions with the exact same premise. Are these books illustrative of their time period? Yes, absolutely! There are numerous cultures and settings that have these social mores (even today). But your story has to be about more than just that. Your protagonist needs to have a more pressing goal and focus, or else your book will be missing the nuance and depth required to set it apart from a million other books.

The social mores of the time can help establish the setting, so I’m not saying they shouldn’t be included in your book. I’m just saying, don’t stop there when you’re coming up with the plot. Go beyond the standard conflict of society’s expectations vs the protagonist. This probably one of the most common conflicts in historical fiction, so your protagonist needs more to do than worry about what society will think of her.

5. Pacing is too slow.
Life was slower a hundred years ago than it is now. Everything took more time—from household chores to communicating with loved ones. (Imagine waiting weeks for a letter in the mail to hear how your friend is doing, as opposed to getting annoyed when she hasn’t texted you back in an hour.) Yet regardless of the time period your book is set in, the pacing of the story has to be strong. Sometimes in historical fiction, the slower pace of life at that time leads the author to create slow pacing. The conflict doesn’t appear quickly enough, and the action doesn’t continue to build. There are lulls of inaction and waiting for things to happen. Though it may be historically accurate, readers will put down a book if the plot is too slow, so just make sure the story continues to change and evolve, even if things take a little longer.

6. It’s already been done.
There are certain time periods and historical figures that have been written about so extensively that’s very hard to get publishers excited about a new book on this topic. A couple examples off the top of my head are WWII and Jack the Ripper. I remember one time I visited NYC to meet with editors, the topic of WWII historical fiction came up over and over again, and of the maybe seven editors I discussed it with, only one wanted to see it. The rest said it had already been done so many times that it didn’t feel fresh. They weren’t sure how to break out a new WWII novel amidst all the other ones already available. So whenever I get a submission set during WWII, I’m already hesitant to take it on, because I know the market is oversaturated. But most of the WWII novels in the market are set in the US or Europe, so a WWII novel set somewhere else (like Australia or Africa) could potentially be fresh enough to grab publishers’ interest.

Jack the Ripper is another topic that’s been covered so much in fiction that it’s hard to find something new to say. Maybe if the author took the basic outlines of what happened and moved them to a different time period and place, it would feel fresh. For example, Hannah Capin’s The Dead Queens Club takes the story of Henry VIII and his six wives (another topic that has been written about extensively) and reimagines it as a contemporary YA novel. The result is amazing. The characters of the wives and Henry are recognizable to anyone who knows their history, yet the story has been translated to the modern teen in a way that makes it its own thing.

So be mindful of what books are already available on your topic, and try not to write about something that’s already been done a lot. Or if you really do want to write about Jack the Ripper, do it in a new way.

If any of these reasons remind you of your book, take a moment to ask yourself how you can make your historical novel come to life in a way that will feel fresh and relevant to contemporary readers. Maybe read books set during a similar time period or on a similar topic to see how other authors approached these areas. If you find yourself swept up in the world of these novels, try to figure out why. Is it the character that has you turning the pages? Is it the richness of the setting? The pacing? Hopefully, it’s all of the above.

What’s My Motivation

I wrote a blog on inciting incidents a while back that touched briefly on character motivation, but today I want to delve more deeply into the topic—what makes for a strong motivation and why it’s important.

For me, character motivation is important for two reasons: it shows me who a character is and it guides the plot.

Let’s start with the obvious one: character development. How does defining a character’s motivation help develop their character? It shows the specificity of the character’s experience. The more specific the motivation, the more clearly we get an idea of what’s important to the character and who they are. For instance, what if you have an abstract motivation, like the classic woman who “wants to have it all.” Your character wants to be respected in her career, but also find love and have a family. She wants to be happy and fulfilled in every area of her life. There are a million ways she could achieve this, which makes it a really abstract goal. It doesn’t tell me what’s unique or specific about the character. It has also been used so many times in books and movies/TV that it’s become a total cliché. So when I see this motivation in a query, it tells me that the author has relied on an archetype, rather than fully developing a character.

When you get more specific with your character’s motivation, it fills in the lines of who she is. For instance, if she wants to get the big promotion to prove that she is smart and capable, after being told by her mother all her life that she isn’t. Would she kill for it? Maybe. Would I read that book? Yes. So long as there’s more detail and texture to her and her mother’s characters, and I’m given vivid, sensory descriptions of the cigarette-stained couch she slept on throughout high school that show me how badly she wants a different life for herself. And there’s murder. Or thoughts of murder.

The important thing is that the motivation has detail, nuance and emotional depth. Those things will show me the uniqueness of the character’s experience, which will make her feel like a real person I can connect to.

Sometimes I’ll get submissions where it seems like the author came up with the concept of the plot, and then threw together a character to move through that plot. My problem is not so much that the author came up with the plot before the character, it’s that they didn’t really spend time on the character, or build the character from the inside out. And I’ll see it in their motivation, or lack thereof.

For instance, let’s say your character is an actor, who’s decided to leave the acting world for the world of banking. His parents have been on his case to get a real job for awhile, and so he gets a job in banking. On the surface level this may sound like a solid motivation, but it still begs the question: why banking? Of all the “real jobs” a person can get, why did he choose banking? Was he always good at math? Does he have a positive memory of winning Math Field Day as a kid? (Yes, Math Field Day was a real thing when I was a kid. No, I did not win, so my memory of Math Field Day is bitter and angstful, and would not be a good motivation for me to give up agenting for banking.) Was winning Math Field Day the last time he felt like his father was proud of him? Now you’ve got specificity, you’ve got an emotional connection to math, and that helps fill out his motivation.

But you also need to explain why he decides to leave acting. If his parents have been telling him to get a real job forever, why is he only doing it now? What happened that made him either a) decide to listen to his parents, or b) give up acting? Why couldn’t he continue to go on auditions while he works in banking? Anytime a character makes a major life change, there needs to be a solid reason why he decided to do one thing and not a million other things. So make sure you’ve fully thought through what your character’s motivation means for his character development. Make sure there’s a character-driven reason for the action, even if you came up with the plot first.

Now for the plot-guiding side of character motivation. Part of the reason it’s important to establish your character’s motivation early (in an inciting incident) is because a character’s motivation points the story in a certain direction. It says, “This is what I’m trying to achieve. This is what you’re reading the book to find out.” It provides a focal point for the plot.

Let’s say your YA protagonist’s motivation is to compete and win a cooking competition show, because she wants to be a chef someday, and more specifically, she wants to work in the kitchen of one of the judges of this show, hence it’s important that she gets his attention. Let’s say you establish this motivation in the first chapter, but then she goes away to summer camp and has adventures there, until she eventually competes on the show. This kind of plot would be unsatisfying, because not all of the action would revolve around her motivation. You might say, “Well, she has the motivation of competing on this show AND learning how to steer a canoe, so all of the plot is relevant.” While a person might want to do both of those things, your character should have one primary motivation that guides the plot. Having multiple motivations can muddy the story.

But that doesn’t mean that the book must only be about the cooking competition. She might also have a love interest and family issues which create sub-plots that will be mixed in with the cooking action. She might go a whole chapter without thinking about cooking, but the point is to keep your eye on the prize and not radically shift the focus of the plot after you’ve established the motivation, or else we won’t see the development of that thing we were turning the pages to find out. Because eventually we will lose interest and stop turning the pages.

How does your character’s motivation establish who he or she is? Is it specific enough? Does it guide the plot? If you’re having trouble answering any of these questions, you might want to take a deep look at your character’s motivation. Because if you can’t answer these questions, the reader won’t be able to either.

The 7 Most Common Mistakes I See in YA

I read A LOT of YA, both for work and for fun. Over time I’ve seen patterns in the books that don’t quite hit the mark, so I wanted to share these potential pitfalls with you to help you look at your YA novel with a critical eye. So without further ado, here are the seven most common mistakes I see in YA:

1. The age range is wrong.
While there are plenty of adults like myself who read YA, the main audience for YA is high school students. Publishers have found that children like to read about characters who are their age or slightly older, which means that your YA protagonist should be 14-18 years-old. In other words, your protagonist should be in high school. (If your story is told from multiple POVs, then all of the POV characters need to be in high school.)

I see a lot of YA submissions with a protagonist that’s outside of this age range, and it immediately dampers my interest in the book, before I’ve even looked at the sample pages, because it tells me the author doesn’t know the requirements of the genre, which suggests that they don’t read books in the genre. While it’s not an absolute requirement that an author be well read in the genre they’re writing, how can you know the norms of the genre if you don’t read it? How can you know what topics have already been done to death? And more importantly, why are you writing a book in a genre you don’t like?

Though some publishers will include college-aged characters in their YA age ranges, by and large having an adult or under-14-year-old protagonist means that your YA novel is unpublishable as YA. Having an adult protagonist in YA isn’t an automatic “no” from me, because I also represent adult fiction, so if I love the book, all we have to do is change the genre to Adult. And once or twice I’ve gotten a YA submission I really liked with a 12-year-old protagonist, and suggested to the author that they change the character’s age to 14. (I didn’t end up making an offer on the book, but I thought about it.) Books with protagonists around 10-12 years-old are typically classified as middle grade, so if your protagonist is too young for YA, your book might be middle grade. (I don’t rep middle grade, so your book wouldn’t be right for me, but it would be right for plenty of other agents.)

2. The purpose of the book is to instruct young readers, not entertain them.
I’ve seen a lot of YA queries that explain to me how young people today don’t know enough about an important historical event or more emotionally-fraught topics like how to recognize when they’re in an abusive relationship. The query points to this as the reason the author decided to write the book. Neither of these things are a bad motivation for writing a book, but they both run the risk of coming off as lecture-y. And they miss the point of why people pick up novels: to be entertained. A book can definitely be entertaining and informative at the same time, but sometimes when authors set out with the mission to educate their reader, they forget about entertaining them.

Often when I get submissions that fall into this category, the characters aren’t well-formed, and in some cases the tone of the writing is condescending. You feel like your 10th grade history teacher is berating you for not appreciating the role of the War of 1812 on contemporary society. So make sure you’re speaking to young adult readers on their level, and not talking down to them. And even if you start with the goal of educating readers, go back through your book once you’re done and critically look at all of its components (character development, writing, plot progression, etc.) and ask yourself if the book would still hold up if it wasn’t about a topic that’s important to you. It also never hurts to get some real teens to beta read for you.

3. The book uses a distant 3rd person past tense POV.
This is not a deal breaker, since there are some YA novels with 3rd person past tense that have been huge (like Eleanor and Park). But most YA is written in 1st person present tense, so using that POV might make it easier for your book to get published. The reason so many YA novels use 1st person present tense is because YA relies on a real emotional intimacy with the characters and a strong sense of immediacy in the writing. (Immediacy means there’s very little filter between the thoughts/feelings of the character and the words on the page. The reader is getting direct access to the character’s thoughts in real time.) It’s easier to accomplish these things in 1st person present tense, though it can be done in 3rd person past tense (or 1st person past tense or 3rd person present tense). The mistakes below are ultimately more damaging to creating a believable YA voice that readers can connect to than which tense you use.

4. The writing over-narrates/over-explains the thoughts and feelings of the characters.
This may be the most common mistake I see. (I see it in my adult submissions too.) When it explains the character’s thoughts, rather than putting those thoughts directly on the page, it creates distance between the reader and the character, which is especially problematic in YA since YA relies on intimacy and immediacy. Instead of feeling like we’re in the character’s head, seeing the action through her eyes, we’re reminded that we’re reading a book.

What counts as over-narration? “I reached my right hand out to the side in the hopes that my inching fingers would feel the smooth plastic sides of my phone. I wanted to check if I had any new likes on the Instagram picture I posted earlier in the day.” A couple things make this fall into the category of over-narration. A) Look how directly I’m explaining what she’s doing. I am telling you that she wants to see how many likes she has. These are not thoughts appearing in her head, this is me explaining after the fact why her fingers are moving. And B) Look how many words I need to explain all this. It’s not enough that she’s moving her hand, I stop to specify that it’s her right hand. And I can’t just say she’s moving her hand, I have to include this weird description of her fingers inching along, like anyone actually does that in real life. And I stopped to specify that not only is she looking for the sides of her phone, but that it’s made of smooth plastic, like there’s any other kind of phone.

The first thing you could do to improve a piece of writing like this is to strip it of its superfluous words, like this: “I reached my hand out to grab my phone. I wanted to check if I had any new likes on Instagram.” Not bad, but not amazing. I’ve cut out the unnecessary words, but the writing is still kinda flat, because I’m still explaining this to you, rather than putting you in her thoughts.

What about this? “I looked great in the yellow chiffon. Bobby said it. Marcy said it. So why did I only have a thousand likes? Oh, wait. 1,023. And one new comment from @figgystar4evr, fierceness!! 🙂  I put my phone down.” I didn’t have to explain to you that she picked up her phone. It was implied by the new number of likes and the new comment. (And by the line where she put her phone down.) Instead of explaining these things, I went directly into the character’s thoughts. I decided to make her a child star or wannabe model with a team of sycophantic handlers trying to make her feel better after a photo shoot in a yellow chiffon dress wasn’t getting enough likes on Instagram. I could just picture her. Hopefully you could too.

5. The word choice is too formal/stilted/academic to feel like a natural teen voice.
This one applies to adult books too. You should try to keep your word choice within the bounds of words you use in everyday conversation, even in narration. Otherwise your writing can feel stilted and emotionally distant. For example, you wouldn’t have a contemporary teen narrate: “I traversed the promenade disconsolate over the turn of events.” I wouldn’t even recommend, “I walked across the plaza disconsolate over the turn of events.” “Disconsolate” ruins the whole sentence. Though I also wouldn’t recommend, “I walked across the plaza sad about the turn of events.” Even though none of these are big words, I feel like “the turn of events” is an antiquated phrase, so the writing still comes off as too formal. Teens are more likely to use a phrase like “how things went down.” So make sure your language reads as fresh and natural. Hang out with some real teens, or if you don’t know any real teens, eavesdrop on some at a coffee shop, if you need inspiration.

6. The concept relies too much on clichés and archetypal characters.
If I had a dollar for every pitch I read either in my email or on Twitter that talked about Mean Girls or Queen Bees, I could paper my walls with them. The Mean Girl has almost become an archetype, she’s been used so much in popular culture. So has The Cheerleader, The Nerd, The Jock, etc. The Breakfast Club has been done. And if all you’re offering is a stereotype that’s already been done, then you’re not making a great argument for why your book should be published. If you’re going to use a trope, then make something new out of it. Mega-bestseller One of Us Is Lying took Breakfast Club archetypes and gave them a depth and nuance that wasn’t in the original movie. The book is also a locked-room mystery, which also puts a fresh spin on The Breakfast Club. So if you’re going to use an archetype, turn it upside-down and show a different side that we haven’t seen before. In other words, transform it from an archetype to a fully-realized character.

7. The book is set when the author was a teen.
I often see YA submissions set in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. In the query, the author usually explains that this was the era he went to high school. Part of the issue with these settings is how the book will be categorized. YA that doesn’t have a clear-cut genre (like fantasy or mystery) usually gets categorized as contemporary or historical. And the 1970s-1990s are neither, which makes it harder to position the book.

And ultimately you’re writing for today’s teenagers, so how are you going to make a book about the Vietnam War or grunge rock relevant to them? It may have been very influential to you, but they have an entirely different point of reference, and may not know who Eddie Vedder is off the top of their head. (And again, if you’re writing the book to teach teens about Pearl Jam, then you might be coming at it from the angle of educating rather than entertaining, and mistake number two applies.)

I’m not saying you absolutely can’t write a book set during this time period. There have been some very successful books that were set in the last fifty years. I’m just saying, don’t assume your experience of high school is universal and will be appealing to contemporary teens. Come at your book from the perspective of today’s teens and write about themes relevant to them. You may still be able to use the time period you want.

The best way to see how your book stacks up is to read, read, read other YA books you feel are similar to yours in theme. Look at the writing, characters, setting, and plot. See if you notice any patterns yourself!

On Rejection

Rejection happens to the best of us, as any famous writer will tell you. We’ve all heard that Harry Potter was rejected by twelve publishers before it found a home. I’ve seen books rejected by 30 or 40 editors before getting published. And that’s just the editors. Who knows how many agents it was rejected by before it got to that point.

So why do books—good books—get rejected? There are a million reasons, but usually it’s some combination of subjective and objective concerns. I’ll start with the subjective.

I often tell my clients that rejections are like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You have one editor say, “I loved the characters, but I felt like the pacing was slow.” And another say, “I felt like the pacing was really strong, but I couldn’t connect to the characters.” Sometimes editors all say the same thing, but often it’s this very fragmented, piecemeal, contradictory feedback, which can make it hard to tell if this really is something you need to work on or if that person just isn’t the right fit for the book.

Often to make an offer on a book, an editor needs to fall in love with it. How do you make a person fall in love? You can’t. It’s something they feel or don’t feel, and you have no control over it. These kinds of rejections can be any variation of “I liked X, but didn’t like Y,” so they can cover the writing, characters, voice, plot, pacing, world-building, and any other component of your book. You may also get the standard, “I liked this book, but didn’t love it.”

When I read a submission, I don’t decide to represent it by making a value judgment about whether or not it’s a “good book,” I’m just looking to fall in love with it. There have been multitudes of submissions I’ve read where I can acknowledge on an intellectual level that this author is talented, yet it something about it doesn’t move me, and I turn it down. Sometimes these books have gone on to get published and do tremendously well. While that makes part of me want to kick myself, I’m not sure how I could’ve responded any differently. I have to trust my gut, and recognize when something isn’t right for me.

So while the “I liked it but didn’t love it” response can be frustratingly vague, it also nails the subjectivity of rejections, that editors want to work on books they love, not objectively “good” books (because there’s no such thing as an objectively good book).

But it’s not all subjective. There’s also that sneaky little thing called “the market.” As in, “I really loved it, but I couldn’t figure out how to position it in the market,” or “I’m not sure this is fresh enough to break into the oversaturated market.” In other words, love can only get you so far in publishing. The publisher also needs to believe that the book will be profitable. And they don’t take just their subjective feelings into account to determine its profitability (“I love it, therefore everyone else will love it and buy it”), they need to quantify the audience objectively. How do they do that?

Well, if you’re writing a nonfiction book and you have 200,000 people on your mailing list, that’s the most straightforward way. Or if you have 50,000 Twitter followers. Or two million podcast subscribers. Basically, you have a means to quantify the number of people who know who you are and are interested in what you have to say.

Most authors, especially if they’re writing fiction, don’t have that kind of built-in audience. So how do publishers quantify their marketability? Comp titles. If a book in a similar vein sold millions of copies, it’s easy for publishers to make the argument that there is a strong market for this type of book. But it cuts both ways. If a publisher worked on a similar book that didn’t sell well, they will be hesitant to work on a new book in this category. And if your book is like no other book on the market, publishers will be equally hesitant to work on it, because they will have no comp titles at their disposal to argue for the book’s profitability.

It’s also about the book fitting into a clearly defined genre, like romance, for instance. Let’s say that you have a romance novel, but only part of it is about the romance. There’s also magical realism and it’s set on a farm, so it contains a lot of information about the agricultural industry. How do you categorize that? It probably doesn’t have enough romance in it to call it a romance novel. Also romance novels don’t traditionally have magical realism in them, and I doubt romance readers would pick up a book to learn more about pesticides. So not a romance. But there’s very little magical realism in it, so it doesn’t fit in that genre either. Maybe you could get away with calling it women’s fiction, but even then, you could still get the “I don’t know how to position this in the market” response. Meaning: “I don’t know how to reach readers who want romance, magical realism and farming all in one book.” Or “the number of readers who want that combination is very small, so this isn’t a good financial investment for our company.” Because ultimately, a publisher’s primary objective is to make money. That’s the only way it can pay its staff and continue operating. So regardless of how much an editor loves a book, they won’t acquire something that they don’t believe will sell a lot of copies.

Sometimes the problem isn’t an unclearly defined genre, it’s that the genre is too narrow. Let’s say you want to write a guidebook for French bulldog owners, because there are certain things about Frenchies that aren’t covered in general dog ownership manuals. Don’t be surprised if the response you get is that Frenchie owners is too much of niche market. Publishers want to work on books that will reach the biggest audience possible, so they’re more likely to want a book that’s applicable to all dog owners, or better yet, all pet owners, than for one specific dog breed.

So ultimately publishers want books they absolutely love (subjective) that they believe will sell a lot of copies (objective). If your book doesn’t meet both of those requirements, they will probably reject it.

The subjective aspect of publishing is something you cannot change. Not everyone is going to love what you write, and that’s ok. The important thing is to make sure you’re offering the best product possible. That your book is polished (it has strong writing, characters and plot), and appealing to a wide (quantifiable) audience. It might not stop you from being rejected, but it will hopefully cut down on the number of rejections you get, and get you published more quickly.

Querying 101

Query letters are the bane of many a writer’s existence. Whatever joy authors get from writing is often tempered by the frustration of writing a query letter. For any authors struggling with their queries, hopefully my simple 5-6 paragraph format will take the sting out of query writing.

Paragraph 1: Introduction
This is a 1-2 sentence introductory paragraph that provides the agent with your book’s title, genre, and word count. This is also a great place to briefly explain why you thought the agent would be right for the book. Maybe you read on the agent’s Manuscript Wishlist page that she was looking for middle grade books set at summer camp, or maybe you feel your book is similar to another book the agent has done. You might also briefly describe the hook or themes of the book. And I mean briefly. This paragraph really shouldn’t be more than 1-2 sentences. Or you might compare your book to another book or two on the market. Here are some sample introduction paragraphs:

“I would love to send you STACKED UP, my 88,000 word narrative nonfiction book that reveals the hidden lives of hoarders.”

“I am looking for representation for my young adult psychological thriller that I’d describe as Sharp Objects meets We Were LiarsI’ll Never Tell (75,000 words). You mention being a big fan of both books on your MSWL profile, so I thought you’d enjoy it.”

“Given your interest in otherworldly historical fiction, I present to you my historical magical realism novel that addresses race, power, and what it means to belong—THE HARVEST. It is complete at 68,000 words.”

Paragraphs 2-3: Plot
Your plot may seem like the most straightforward part of your query, yet I see authors continually struggle with knowing how much of their plot to describe. Some authors believe that they’re supposed to describe the entire plot of the book, which isn’t the case. (Save that for the synopsis.) Other authors focus more on abstract themes than physical action, which is too vague and doesn’t give me an idea of what actually happens in the book. So how much plot is enough?

The kind of plot description I’m looking for in a query sets up the primary conflict and/or the protagonist’s primary goal, shows the stakes for the protagonist, describes some of the rising action around that conflict/goal, and hints at the climax. I don’t need to know about every battle your protagonist wins, or every clue he follows. The plot description should remain focused on the primary conflict and the things that directly complicate it.

Most plot descriptions I see are made up of two paragraphs. Generally the first plot paragraph sets up the conflict and stakes, then the second shows the rising action and hints at the climax. Some authors sum all this up in one plot paragraph, which works too. It doesn’t matter whether you use one paragraph or two so long as you cover all the important elements.

If you want to briefly touch on the themes of the book, that can be a nice addition to your second plot paragraph. (Or if you just have one plot paragraph it can act as your second plot paragraph.)

Paragraph 4: Comp Titles/Audience
Comp titles are published books that you consider similar to yours in some way. (I wrote a blog on comp titles a few months ago that you can read here if you’d like a more in depth look at the various ways of using them.) Even if you mentioned comp titles in your introductory paragraph, you can mention other comps here if you have them.

The main purpose of this paragraph is to show the audience for your book. Your audience may be readers of a certain book, author or genre. (Hence the need for comp titles.) It may be viewers of certain TV shows or movies. It may be readers of certain blogs or magazines. It may be members of certain associations or fellowships. Or it may be even more specific. For instance, if your book is a self-help book on parenting autistic children, then clearly your audience is parents of autistic children, though it may also be psychologists, teachers and others who work with autistic children. Whoever your audience is, be sure to identify them in this paragraph.

Paragraph 5: Author Bio/Publications/Platform
The kind of bio information I’m looking for is something that relates to your credentials for the writing the book. It could be previous publication credits if you have them, such as published essays, short stories or books. It could be writing prizes or honors you’ve received, like being nominated for a Pushcart Prize. If you’re writing prescriptive nonfiction, then this is the place where you explain why you’re qualified to write the book and what your platform is.

If you want to add a cute line about your cat figurine collection or your teaching job, that’s fine, but the focus of this paragraph should be on your writing career and/or your career that relates to the topic of the book (if applicable).

Paragraph 6: Closing
Your closing paragraph should be simple and polite, perhaps thanking the agent for their time or showing how you followed their submission guidelines. Something along the lines of:

“Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.”


“As per your submission guidelines, I have pasted the synopsis and the first two chapters in the body of the email below. Please let me know if you’d like me to send you the complete manuscript.”

Bam! Done! See, that wasn’t so hard!

Six Things You Need in a Mystery Novel

I love mysteries. I love the thrill of uncovering new clues, of guessing who the murderer is, of being wrong, of being right. I love the thrill of seeing the pieces come together in the end. I love a dramatic climax and a satisfying resolution.

Another reason I love mysteries is because it’s easy to break the plot into distinct parts and tell whether or not it’s working. The plot of a mystery is usually more clear cut to me than the plot in women’s fiction or historical fiction.

Whether you’re writing a cozy, a police procedural or something in between, there are certain things a reader expects to see in a commercial mystery. (If your mystery is more on the literary side, then you might not have all of these qualities, but you should have some of them.) Here are the things that keep me turning the pages:

1. There needs to be a murder.
Maybe this seems obvious, but I mention it because occasionally I’ll receive mystery submissions where the crime is a heist or drug deal. Books like that fall more in the category of crime than mystery, in my opinion. And for me personally, theft and drug trafficking aren’t as interesting as good, old-fashioned murder, so they’re not likely to inspire me to read more.

There is always the question of when the murder needs to happen in the book. I’ve heard several editors say that they want the body to be found within the first three chapters, so that is a good standard to go by. (But there are always exceptions to that rule. My fabulous client, Libby Klein, holds off on the body dump until the end of the first act, which is often 90 pages in.)

2. There needs to be a reason for the protagonist to investigate.
In a police procedural, it’s the cop’s job to investigate, so this reason is obvious. Same with private investigators. Their reason is that someone hired them to investigate.

With an amateur sleuth, the most common reason I see is that the protagonist is the prime suspect. This is a great reason, because there are major consequences for the protagonist if she doesn’t investigate, like going to jail for a crime she didn’t commit. It’s also a great motivation when the prime suspect is someone close to the protagonist (like a family member or friend). Or when the murder has hurt the protagonist’s business in some way, and solving the crime will fix it. For example, a body is found on the protagonist’s vineyard, which keeps tourists away and now she’s struggling to make ends meet.

I’ve received amateur sleuth mysteries where the protagonist decides to investigate just for fun, and they usually stagnate at a certain point. Why? Because there are no stakes for the protagonist. If she doesn’t solve the crime, or if she solves it slowly, nothing bad will happen to her. There’s no fire under her that compels her to solve it in a timely manner, so I’m not desperately turning the pages to find out if she succeeds. It’s easy to root for someone when they have a definable goal, like not going to jail or saving their business from bankruptcy. But when they have a vague goal, like having fun, I don’t know when they’ve reached it. (I mean, they had fun when they impersonated plumbers to get inside a suspect’s house, but was that the most fun they can possibly have solving the case? I don’t know!) So always make sure there is a solid reason for your protagonist to solve the crime and stakes if they don’t succeed.

3. There need to be clues.
The purpose of a clue is to point the investigation in a direction, to provoke a question that needs to be answered. A clue can be a million different things. It can be a piece of forensic evidence found at the scene. It can be an eyewitness testimony. It can be a photograph. It can be an anonymous call. Some of these clues will be resolved part way through the book, and some won’t come together until the end. Whatever clues you use, you need to keep them coming if you want readers to keep turning the pages. You want to keep a question in your reader’s mind at all times.

I’ve received submissions where the clues lead to dead ends quickly and new clues aren’t brought in to guide the reader in a new direction. This again causes the investigation to stagnate and lose momentum. So make sure there’s always something left unexplored until you reach the climax.

4. There needs to be building action and tension.
One form of building action is the development of clues that I just described. Another is some outside pressure that makes the protagonist need to solve the crime even faster. For example, pressure from his boss that he’ll lose his job if he doesn’t solve it, or pressure from the police that his aunt is about to be arrested, or pressure from the murderer, like an attempt on the protagonist’s life. In other words, the stakes that your protagonist already has have to get even stakier to build up to a climax.

5. There needs to be surprise.
This means holding off on revealing who the killer is until the last minute. When you give away this information too early, you’ve created one more reason why the reader doesn’t feel compelled to finish the book. Misdirecting the reader with other suspects is a great way to keep the true killer a surprise.

6. There needs to be showdown between the protagonist and the killer.
The protagonist needs to be the one to find and confront the killer. And it’s best if your protagonist does this alone. Why? Because the most satisfying form of climax in a mystery involves your protagonist being in danger, and what could be more dangerous than a one-on-one with the murderer who’s been terrorizing the characters in the book.

This also reinforces your protagonist’s role as the primary driver of action in the story. If your protagonist found the killer and then sent someone else in to make the arrest, your protagonist would come off as passive. For the book to be satisfying, your protagonist has to act to bring about a change in a plot. He has to be the one to wrestle the killer to the ground or to talk him off the ledge. He has to be the only one who knows where the killer is, or has the right skills to bring him to justice, or the only person who put the puzzle together.

Does your mystery have all these things? If it does, congratulations, your book might be ready to send out. If it doesn’t, take a close look at your plot and ask yourself what you can do to build up that area. There is no one-size-fits-all rule for how to write a mystery, but hopefully this will give you a framework to break down the mechanics of your plot to see if it’s running smoothly.

Rules We Learned About Writing that We Need to Unlearn

In grade school, I always sat near the blackboard. With a last name like Bomke you get placed at the beginning of most things. (This is probably why it took me so long to get glasses.)

My memories of English class are scant. I think maybe we did sentence diagramming one day, but the memory might just as easily be from a TV show. Though I’m not sure where or when, there were certain rules I learned about writing growing up that working in publishing has rid me of. I continue to see authors follow these well-meaning but ineffective guidelines in their writing, so I thought it would be useful to lay them out.

Rule #1: Use a word other than “said” in dialogue
One thing I do remember vividly is being given a list of words other than “said” that I was meant to use when writing dialogue. The point of the lesson was to get students to be more creative with their writing, to not just repeat the same word over and over again, but to think outside of the “said” box. This is a good lesson in general. I’m a big fan of varying word choice, as I mentioned in a previous blog. But if you open most published books, you’ll see that most of the dialogue statements use “said” and most of the dialogue questions use “asked.” Why? Because dialogue should be so effortless that the reader forgets they’re reading dialogue and is just hearing the characters speak. A word like “said” is so basic that often when we read it in dialogue, we don’t even notice it. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, so our attention remains focused on the words the character is saying. If you used a word like “queried” or “speculated” instead, it would pop out more, which would remind the reader “hey, you’re reading dialogue right now,” which in turn would take the reader out of the moment and create distance between the reader and the character. The difference may be subtle, or even subconscious, but to keep that close connection between the reader and your narrator, it’s better for your dialogue tags not to stand out.

Rule #2: Use uncommon words to make your writing stand out
Like I said, I’m all for varying word choice. When this goes wrong in my opinion is when an author uses words that are too unusual or academic.

Sometimes at conferences I’ll do a panel where the moderator reads aloud the first page of an author’s book, and my fellow agents and I will comment on it. The authors are anonymous, but they are conference attendees who are likely sitting in the audience. I remember one opening page that described a war scene. I think there were shots fired, bombs dropped, people running for shelter, but despite all this action the scene wasn’t exciting, I didn’t feel like I was really there in the moment. There were a few reasons for this, and a big one was the word choice. The author had sprinkled in a number of “SAT words”—words you learn to take the SATs, but most people don’t use in real life. This made the writing feel stilted and formal. It didn’t have the immediacy of say writing that focuses on sensory imagery using simple words. I remember there was a camel in the scene. The first time it was mentioned, the author used “camel.” The second time it was mentioned, the author used “dromedary.” Normally I would applaud this word choice variation. But the word “dromedary” is so outside of everyday use, that it just made writing feel more stilted. (I would’ve rather the author used “camel” a second time.) When I read writing like this, sometimes I feel like the author had a thesaurus next to them, and they were looking for the most unusual words to make their writing pop. I’ve got nothing against thesauruses. I use thesaurus.com all the time. (I even used it for this blog.) But I don’t think big or unusual words should be used for their own sake. I don’t think they make a person’s writing better. They often make it worse. So excogitate that exhortation!

Rule #3: Start by describing the setting
Again with this lesson, our teachers were urging us to be creative. To think about the setting and anchor the reader in it, so that they would know the time and location in which the story takes place. This is good advice. In fact, I also believe it’s important to anchor the reader in the setting early on. But it’s more important to open with action that anchors the reader in the character. When I get a submission that spends a paragraph describing the setting before it introduces the action or the characters, I stop reading and move on to the next one. Because if I don’t know the person who lives in this setting, then why do I care about the setting?

Instead I urge writers to open with action that shows me who a character is, and gradually bring in whatever setting details are relevant to anchor the reader. For instance, if it’s set during the Victorian era, you can show that through details like what the character is wearing, what kind of transportation they have available, etc. There’s no need to spend a paragraph describing horse-drawn carriages moving across Trafalgar Square from a distant 3rd person POV. Instead show this setting from your protagonist’s POV. Have her narrate about the steady rocking of the carriage, how it’s like the ocean at low tide. Have her notice the onion skins and dog poop littering the street, clinging to the hems of ladies’ dresses. This kind of opening allows you to do all three things at once: open with action, ground the reader in the character, and ground the reader in the setting.

Rule #4: Describe what your character looks like early on
This early writing prompt was meant to get students to think about who their character is, which is one of the most important aspects of any story. And defining a character by how he looks is easier for children than, for instance, defining a character by his deep-seated emotional issues. But the truth is that how a character looks has virtually nothing to do with who he is, so these kinds of descriptions are often irrelevant in a novel. In fact, they’ve been done so often that they’ve become cliché. If I had a dollar for every submission I got where a character glances at a mirror and describes what he or she looks like, I would be on my own private island guarded by French bulldogs wearing striped shirts and berets. While there isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with describing what your character looks like in the opening, descriptions that don’t move the story along fall under the category of an “info dump.” An info dump pauses the action to explain something to the reader. Often it’s something the reader doesn’t need to know right that second. Or it’s something the reader does need to know, but the author couldn’t figure out how to weave it in more naturally, so it feels tacked on.

The only time when it might be useful to describe what your character looks like in the opening is when how they look ties in to the story’s central conflict. For instance, if a girl is teased because she has red hair or because she wears hand-me-downs from her aunt, then those aspects of how she looks could be mentioned early on. But I don’t necessarily need to know other aspects of how she looks (what color eyes she has, how tall she is, etc) if they don’t relate to the central conflict of her being teased.

All of these rules had a purpose at the time we learned them. They taught us the building blocks of writing, and got us to think outside the box. But it’s even more important to learn the rules of contemporary publishing, what’s normal, what’s over-done, what’s fresh. I always feel like the best way to soak up this knowledge is to be an avid reader in the genre you’re writing in. Then you can learn the norms of the genre, and know what’s out there, and use that information to guide you in the right direction. And you get to read a lot of books. What’s better than that?

Making that Connection

When you think of your all-time favorite books, what do they have in common? For me, it’s a deep connection to the characters. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the characters and I have similar life experiences, but that the characters are grappling with emotions that I’ve felt, which makes me feel a kinship to them. And once you’ve gotten your readers to feel that kinship and empathy for your characters, they will keep turning the pages to find out what happens to the characters. Do the characters reach their goals? Do they overcome their obstacles? Getting readers to invest in your characters is paramount to not just capturing but sustaining their interest over roughly 300 pages. So how do you do that? Here are some tips to crafting memorable, connectable characters from page one:

Show, Don’t Tell
I’m sure we’ve all heard this writing adage 20 million times, but given how often I see “telling writing” in submissions, it’s a lesson worth repeating. Here’s an example of telling writing: “I felt so sad I could hardly stand it.” The problem with this kind of sentence is I have no idea what it means to be “so sad I could hardly stand it.” One person might describe feeling this way after the death of a family member, whereas another person might say this when they don’t get to check their Instagram for a few hours because their iPhone is being fixed. Sadness is relative to the person describing it. And even if the character clarifies what they’re sad about, like for instance, the death of a family member, I still don’t know what that sadness feels like, because it’s relative to the character’s relationship to that family member. And even if that’s clarified, if the character says the relative was like her best friend, I still don’t know what that feels like. If I’ve lost a person who was like my best friend, maybe I can try to project my own experience onto that character, but it won’t give me a clear picture of who this character is, which means I won’t be able to connect to her.

Now let’s consider the same idea with showing writing: “I was a balloon losing air, flabby and wrinkled from being passed through too many hands. I wanted to lie down. I wanted to cover myself with the guest room’s worn wool blanket and lose myself in its whiteness.” The first sentence uses a metaphor, as the character refers to herself directly as a “balloon losing air.” And then it goes on to describe qualities that a balloon losing air has, it’s “flabby” and “wrinkled.” Anyone who has seen such a balloon knows what it looks like. This invites the reader to imagine what it would feel like to be the balloon. And obviously it relates to what is going on in the scene: the character is at the funeral for a person who meant the world to her. People are hugging her and sharing their condolences, but this just makes her feel like she has less room to breathe. She wants to lie down. She wants to lose herself under a blanket. In other words, she wants to dissolve, to cease to exist. That’s how much this person meant to her. That’s how oppressive the atmosphere of the funeral is to her. And again, she’s given us a visceral thing that people can easily imagine, what it feels like to be completely covered by a blanket.

So showing writing means anchoring the reader in a visceral experience, whereas telling writing relies on abstract concepts that are too open to interpretation. (Showing writing also often involves literary devices, like similes and metaphors, but that’s not a requirement.) Because I know what a flabby balloon that’s been passed around too much feels like, and I know what it’s like to be covered by a blanket, I can experience her feelings and more importantly begin to care about her. And if I’m worried for her, if I want to see her make it through her grief ok, then you’ve got me turning the pages.

Infuse Your Character’s POV in EVERYTHING
What I mean is don’t just use showing writing to describe things, use showing writing that shows readers how the character views the world. I specifically chose to refer to the blanket in the above example as “worn” in order to imply that the character also feels worn. If my point was simply that the blanket was old, I could’ve used “timeworn” or “antique” or even “treasured,” but all of those would insinuate that the blanket was old in a way that made it special or valuable, which would work against the character’s grieving mood and diminish the effect I was going for. I also could’ve had my character say she wants to lose herself in the blanket’s “folds,” but I specifically chose to use “whiteness” instead to further enhance the idea of her wanting to vanish, to be consumed by something that would erase her. While “folds” wouldn’t have been a bad choice, in theory, it’s more expected and it doesn’t do much to show her mood. To be lost under the folds of a blanket implies you’re still there under the blanket, whereas to be lost in whiteness has the additional connotation of being erased, so it creates more of a mood. And if you’ve given me a mood through showing writing, I can connect to it.

You have so many choices of how to describe something, so pick words that entrench us in the character’s POV. A woman jogging down the beach at dawn can describe “a pink sky,” which doesn’t show us anything about her character. She can describe “a bubble-gum pink sky” which tells me she’s in a cheerful mood. She can describe the sky as being “the color of watered-down blood,” which gives me an ominous feeling, like she’s about to kill someone. They’re all pink. Frankly, it’s not important to me that the sky is pink in the first place unless you’re using its pinkness to show me something about the character. So no pink skies! Give me watered-down blood or nothing!

Roll Over and Show Me Your Belly
This suggestion is possibly more subjective, since I see plenty of published books without it, but for me to fully connect to a character, I need to see her vulnerability. This vulnerability can come in the form of grief, like our previous example. It can be a feeling of insecurity. It can be fear. It can be the most important thing in the world to a character, like her dog, or her dreams of becoming a prima ballerina. It can be a lot of things. Everyone has vulnerabilities, so when a character doesn’t, I feel like there’s wall around her preventing me from seeing hers. It doesn’t tell me that she has no vulnerabilities, just that she doesn’t trust me enough to share them with me. To connect to a character, I need to feel like I understand her, and I’ll never fully understand a character who hides her innermost feelings.

(This isn’t to say that if you’re writing a psychological thriller, for example, that the character needs to say from the get-go that she killed her husband. Certain genres rely on the character hiding certain things, on being an unreliable narrator, and I’m not suggesting the reader should know everything about a character if it interferes with the surprise factor. But the reader should know what makes a character tick, or else they’ll never make a full connection. You can also lead the reader to think they understand a character, and then twist the ending so they realize they never did understand her, but I digress.)

Like everything else in publishing, whether or not a reader connects to your character is subjective. Even if you do all of the above, some readers just won’t connect to your character, and that’s ok. It just means your book isn’t right for them. But all the same you should do whatever you can to make your character “connectable.” Show your character’s unique point of view and emotional state through showing writing, making the most out of every word (no pink skies!) and revealing their vulnerabilities. You just might make your own publishing connection.


Today I’m going to talk about one of the most important and undervalued phrases in the publishing world: comp titles. Comp titles are published books that you would compare your book to. They are similar to your book in terms of plot, characters, style or concept.

Why are comp titles important? They hook an agent’s interest. If you say your book is in the vein of The Secret History by Donna Tartt and that’s one of the agent’s favorite books of all time, then you’ve got their attention. They also make it easier for agents and editors to pitch your book. Agents use comp titles all the time in their pitches to editors, and editors use them in their pitches to the rest of their team, so if you’ve already done the work for them and found the ideal comp titles, it makes it easier for them to pitch it to other people.

Here are some effective ways to use comp titles:

  1. “I would love to send you my moody police procedural in the vein of Tana French…” This type of comp is very straightforward in that it compares your book directly to the works of another author. When I see this kind of comp, I expect your book to embody some of the qualities that make Tana French’s books so dynamic, like really deep character development in your cop protagonist, a memorable voice and vivid, literary writing. Or perhaps your police procedural is also set in Ireland, so your work is similar to French’s in that sense. This kind of comp wording is good when you feel like your book is similar to another author’s books in more ways than one. You can also refer to more than one author in a “in the vein of” comp (“I would love to send you my moody police procedural in the vein of Tana French and Caz Frear”), or you can use titles instead of authors (“I would love to send you my moody police procedural in the vein of The Likeness”), or more than one title (“I would love to send you my moody police procedural in the vein of The Likeness and Sweet Little Lies”).
  2. “I would love to send you my historical psychological thriller that I’d describe as Gone with the Wind meets Gone Girl…” Instead of comparing your book directly to another book, this kind of comp suggests that your book is a mash-up of two books, combining different aspects of each book to create something new. In this example, maybe your book is set in the South during the Civil War, like Gone with the Wind, but the plot focuses on the cat-and-mouse game between estranged spouses, like Gone Girl. The great thing about the “X meets Y” comp is that it allows you to combine two books that people normally wouldn’t put together, which makes the concept of your book sound fresh and unique. If I was pitched a book as “Gone with the Wind meets Gone Girl,” I would be all over it, because I would be curious to see how the author combined such different novels.
  3. “I would love to send you my young adult novel that combines the humor of Simon Vs. The Homo Sapien Agenda with the dark fantasy of The Hazel Wood…” In this case, you’re not just giving the reader a mash-up of two books or authors, you’re specifying what qualities each of those books has that make it similar to your book. This more specific “aspect of X meets aspect of Y” comp can be useful if you’re having a hard time coming up with direct comp titles.
  4. “I would love to send you my literary horror novel that I’d describe as Pan’s Labyrinth meets Dark City…” This the same as the “X meets Y” comp format listed above, but it’s with movie titles instead of book titles. Movies provide a quick reference point just like books, so it’s fine to use them as comps if they’re a closer match for your book.

Here are some ineffective ways to use comp titles:

  1. “My dystopian YA thriller is similar to The Hunger Games, but with much better writing and character development…” You should never criticize another book when you make a comp, because a) you sound like an arrogant jerk, b) the agent you’re sending your query to may have worked on the book you’re criticizing or may really like it. Not to mention, even if you didn’t like The Hunger Games you have to admit that it must’ve done something right to have been so popular.
  2. “My fantasy middle grade series will be the next Harry Potter…” One problem with this kind of comp is that it can never live up to the hype. I mean, it’s possible that your fantasy middle grade series will be the next Harry Potter, but is it likely? No. Because Harry Potter was such a massive success that 99.99999999999999% of middle grade fantasy novels will not measure up. So why set yourself up for an almost impossible goal? The other concern I have when I see comps like this is that maybe the author doesn’t know the middle grade fantasy market very well. If an author chooses comps that weren’t the most popular books in their sub-genre, but did relatively well or were well-reviewed, then that tells me the author knows the sub-genre deeply enough to go beyond the most obvious comps. So conversely, when the author chooses the most popular book in that sub-genre that everyone, even non middle grade fantasy readers, knows, it doesn’t give me the assurance that the author is well-read in the sub-genre, knows what’s already been done and what readers are looking for.
  3. “My quirky travelogue will appeal to readers of On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas…” The first issue I have with this kind of comp is that it repeats the same errors of the previous bad comp of choosing the most popular books in that sub-genre. The second issue I have is that these are both books that were published over 40 years ago. They were revolutionary for their time, but it’s been so long since they were published that oodles of people have tried to replicate their style since then and it’s no longer revolutionary or fresh. Again, this makes me concerned that the author isn’t up to date on the current travelogues being published and doesn’t understand the current expectations of the sub-genre. I feel the same way when I see YA novels pitched as being in the vein of Catcher in the Rye or The Outsiders. It tells me the author doesn’t know the current market for YA fiction, so I feel less confident that their book will appeal to the current market. So when you pick your comps, try to pick ones that have been published in the last 10 years.
  4. “My book is unlike any other book published.” I see this from time to time, and it raises all kinds of red flags in my mind. It tells me that the author hasn’t done any research into comps and doesn’t know the market for their book, which makes their book more difficult to sell. Publishers need to have a clear idea of “how to position” a book, meaning they need to understand who the readers for a book are and how to reach them. If they can’t get a clear idea of who the book will appeal to, they will turn down the book. So when an author tells me there are no comps for their book, they’re basically saying they don’t know who their audience is.

The easiest and most effective way to make great comps is to be a fervent reader of the genre you’re writing in. When you know what’s out there, you know where your book fits in the market, and that will turn your query from complete to incomparable!