Category Archives: Writing Queries and Submissions

Fluffing up yourself: scholarships and query letters

Dear Daughter has been working on scholarships recently, which has meant a lot of essays.

“I can’t write about myself,” she wails. “It seems so pompous and uppity.”

Yeah, making yourself look good on paper can feel a bit like you’re patting your own back. The trick is doing it in a way that highlights your accomplishments, passions and future plans without sounding like a one-upper.

How is this possible?

VERBS. Your verb choice is your best friend. Consider a line from one of Dear Daughter’s application.

I got first place at speech subsections.

True, but got isn’t her best option.

Received. A better choice by far, but still doesn’t reference the hard work that went into that First Place win.

Her final version: I earned a First Place medal at speech subsections.

All of those versions mean basically the same thing: she came home from a tournament with a first place. However, the connotations behind them morph her from a passive recipient to a hard-working, motivated medalist.

SPECIFICS. Adding the right details can also go a long way in making you sound like a great candidate without fluffing up your feathers. The simple addition of “medal” in the above statement makes Dear Daughter’s accomplishment feel more robust and prestigious.

CONSISTENCY. Far too often, we write as we speak. This can land us in a world of inconsistent patterns that are not noticeable when talking, but can be extremely distracting on paper. Punctuation and sentence structure while discussing similar ideas or listing activities or skills is super important. A comma here a semi-colon there. Added up, they prove you have no attention to detail–a desirable trait in writers, employees and scholarship recipients. Show your attention to detail by how you present your information, as this is far more impressive than reading the line, “I am detail oriented.”

TASK TALK, NOT BRAGGING RIGHTS. My daughter could easily say, “I’m one of the best students in my class,” or “I’m smart,” or “I rock at speech.” If she used these or similar phrases, she would just as easily turn off every committee considering her for scholarships.

Instead, she–and we–need to focus on what she’s learned or what she’s accomplished. For instance: “I rank in the top ten percent of my class.” Or, “Speech has provided me with strong communication skills as demonstrated by my various medals and honors over the past three years.”

So, while puffing up your chest on paper might feel awkward at first, concentrating on what you did (not who you think you are or want to be) and presenting it in a concise manner will help you remain in the running for top jobs, scholarships and book deals.

What other resume, scholarship or query writing tips do you have to make yourself stand out as a viable candidate, not a bragster?

Curious minds want to know.


Dear Readers and Writers, Got Stories? Want Free Books?

Announcing three Literary Events and what they mean to you.

  1. October 31: Call for Submissions. Short story submissions for the Winter’s Regret anthology must be received by this date. For all you aspiring writers out there, share your story of regret with Elephant’s Bookshelf Press and join other Seasons Series authors. Details can be found here: submission guidelines, while submissions can be sent to
  2. November 1: Debut Novel Release and Prize Giveaway. This day marks the end of an Epic Ten Day Giveaway. Between now and then, A.T.O’Connor is giving away prizes left and right to celebrate the release of her debut novel, Whispering Minds. Prizes include six novels by fresh new writers, as well as other fun and delicious goodies. Check out her blog by the same name: Whispering Minds.
  3. November 1: The Official Start of NaNo. For those who thrive on crazy deadlines and nearly impossible tasks, NaNoWriMo is just around the corner. “What is NaNo?” you ask. National Novel Writing Month is that crazy thirty days where writers eschew all real life responsibilities and pen 50,000 coherent words. Yes, I will be NaNoing again this year, and you can join me. Hop over to NaNoWriMo and sign up now.

And that’s it. Three great things that happen in less than a week.

So, if you write, get your butt in gear. If you read, add to your bookshelves. And if you do neither, there’s no time like the present to start!


Name A Rump: Win A Prize!

This baby’s got back and s/he needs a name!

My publisher, Elephant’s Bookshelf Press, is hosting a contest to name its mascot.

A Few Rules of Note:

*Head over to EBP’s website and leave your suggested name in the comments.

*All Entries must be received by April 15th. Yeah, tax day. But naming our pachyderm friend is a lot more fun than paying Uncle Sam.

*The top ten names will be listed over at EBP on April 30th where you will have the opportunity to Rate The Rump–er, vote on which name you like.

*So, what are you waiting for?

Prizes you say? Okay, the individual who suggests the winning name will receive one of three prizes depending on age and/or desires. S/he can pick from the following:

So, no matter what your reading preference, you should find one story that will tickle your tweeter and make suggesting a name worth your time.

And a reminder: EBP is still selecting short stories for the upcoming summer anthology. The theme deals with endings and whatever that may mean to you. If you’re interested in penning a new piece or dusting off something from the trunk, head over to Elephant’s Bookshelf Press for submission details.

Please spread the word about the contest and the call for submissions. The more names to pick from, the more fun it will be.

Already I can think of half a dozen: Mirabelle, Preston…

How about you?

Optimizing the Query Process with Fewer Mistakes

Eldest leaves for college tomorrow. We–or should I say, I?–have a ton of checklists to keep us on track. And yet, I’m not overly concerned because a giant Walmart lives four blocks from his dorm and he’s only 45 minutes from home. Even if he forgets his tennis shoes, he or we can easily make the trek–on a weeknight if need be–to get them returned to their rightful owner in a timely manner.

And yet, after years of writing, I can’t help but check my lists to make sure we do this thing right the first time.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard exasperated, frustrated or terrified cries of, “Oh for the love of all that’s holy, guess what stupid query thing I did now?”

Yep, more than I can count.

So I thought it would behoove us all to remember that move-in day isn’t the time to first start thinking of how to make a smooth transition. Rather, we need to bear certain things in mind long before we show up at the dorm room with only  Doritos, goldfish and pony keg in hand.

The first and only truth of querying is that first time queriers are often impulsive. We’ve worked hard to polish our manuscripts. We’ve researched agents and have A, B and Z lists. We’ve even had our query letter beta-ed, line edited and tweaked to near-Godliness. We’re ready to go.

And so we forget things like our names or the agent’s name. We attach the wrong file or send blanket queries to a thousand and one agents–only to realize we never changed the agent’s name, so Agent Awesome, Super Agent and Agent Incredible all received a query addressed to Dear Mr. Agent.

We hang our heads in shame, climb back into the closet and vow never to query again–or at least not until our pain subsides and we can once again look ourselves in the mirror.

To help curb those last-minute mistakes, keep a checklist close at hand. Because nothing is worse than showing up for the main event ill-prepared. This list can be used for agent or editor submissions, though I use the term agent almost exclusively.


  • Start by sending only one query at a time, and start each query new. It’s easy to forget that each agent might want a little something different.
  • Go through the checklist with each new query. Until querying becomes second nature, it’s important that you pay close attention to each detail with each new query. Fast fact, the mistakes we make generally occur when we send batches at a time.
  • Check to make sure your agent information is current. Even if you compiled your list two weeks ago, things do change. In fact, agent/editor shuffling might be the only thing in the publishing arena that moves quickly–at least from our point of view–and it does us no good to shoot an email to Uber Agent when he’s been replaced by Agent Incredible.
  • Check the spelling of the agent’s name (and address if snailing it). Nobody likes having her name misspelled and it leaves a bad first impression. In fact, some agents get quite jaded about it over the years. Not that I blame them, as nothing irritates me more than telemarketers massacring my name. Now multiply that by 100 times per day and you’ll understand the importance of getting it right.
  • If you are sending a different query/submission package to each individual agent, double-check the guidelines of the agency and make sure they match the query you are sending. Agents get good at sniffing out blanket submissions. Especially when a query tailored to someone else finds its way into their inboxes.
  • Imbed, paste, attach or collate hard copy sample pages only after you’ve checked and double checked your guidelines. Yes, some agencies still require snail mail submissions and it’s just as important to send the right info to them as it is to e-agents.
  • SASE if snailing it and the agency requires it. The self-addressed stamped envelope is sent so agents can respond with ease. In fact, many agents will leave you hanging forever and ever amen if you don’t provide one for them.
  • If submitting by snail, sign your name. You laugh, but don’t. This is a frequent mistake.
  • Now hit send or hike it down to the post office. Just make sure you have enough postage or your precious letter will never make it to your intended destination.

One of the things I do when researching my agents is create a graph that tells me step by step what to do. It makes it easy to know who gets what, when and how. For example:

  1. Agent Awesome
  2. Address/Agency Info (for snail) or Web Address and email for e-queries
  3. Submission Guidelines (query, query and synopsis, query and 10pp, etc…)
  4. Special Notes (such as attachment directions, credential requests, request for clips, etc…)
  5. Simultaneous or Exclusive Submissions and SASE requests
  6. Time Frame on when to hear back (if this info has been imparted in guidelines)

By combining both lists, I’ve kept my mistakes to a bare minimum. Just like I hope I can do with Eldest tomorrow.

What query/submission mistakes have you made? If you know the outcome of making such a mistake, please share it with us, so we can learn. What things have I forgotten?

Curious minds want to know.

Pick Your Friends, Your Nose & Your Agent/Editor

This past weekend, we had the pleasure to attend our God Daughter’s confirmation.  Close family friends since the summer Dear Hubby and I got married, we adults have been through the births, baptisms and first birthdays of a total of seven kids.  Their oldest graduated three years ago.  Ours does in three weeks.

We’ve been blessed to have had such a wonderful and unfaltering friendship between our two families.  In fact, our collective kids consider each other cousins.  In this respect, we’ve proven the old adage wrong–you can pick your family.

Another myth I’d like to dispel is that writer’s can’t pick their agents, editors or publishers.  I believe we writers can become so starved to see our writing validated that we send queries or submission packages out to any and every breathing professional in the publishing industry.  We don’t consider the long-term impact of accepting offers from less than stellar representatives in the writing arena.

Due diligence, my friends.

Our quasi family has the same morals and values as we have.  They value family and faith.  They respect their children and have strong relationships with them.  They are kind and compassionate, honest and filled with integrity.  They’re fun-loving and generous.  They are the kind of people I’d choose for family.

Similarly, this kind of compatibility is possible within the publishing industry if we choose to do the work.  We must research our options, talk with agents and editors before signing with them and discuss future goals to make sure we’re all on the same page.


  • KNOW YOUR NEEDS: Create a list of what you want and need from your professional.  Promotion, editing, submitting, validation, publishing, Best Seller sales…the list is endless, and specific to each writer.  Know what YOU need and want and why.  It may be vastly different than the writer in the next computer over.  And that’s a good thing.
  • RESEARCH: Sales, clients, policies.  Dig deep to find out what peeps are really saying.  And what they aren’t saying.  Go beyond Google and don’t be afraid of what you might find.  If you find yourself reluctant to read the dirt, then you’re not ready to pick your professional.  You need to KNOW what you need to know.
  • MATCH YOUR NEEDS TO YOUR RESEARCH: It is completely irrelevant what everyone else is doing and who they’re doing it with.  What’s important is how your professional fits with your needs and desires.  These things should fit together like puzzle pieces.

Once you figure out who you want and why, you can begin courting your professional.  Make your contacts meaningful.  Be a professional yourself.  Work harder and smarter to build a relationship with your chosen few.

What’s important to you in a publishing professional?  How do you research your prospective professionals?  How do you court them, and have you been successful in your endeavors to pick your professional?

Curious minds want to know.

Does your writing look like dreamsicle vomit?

After five years and five thousand fingerprint smudges, we repainted our entire upstairs.  Initially, DH was less than thrilled with my choices–particularly the hall bathroom.

“It looks like a dreamsicle threw up in here.”

He was right and I doubted my pick, even though I never told him that.  “You’ll see.  As soon as I get the rugs in and the pictures up and, and, and, it will be fine,” I said with fingers crossed and wishy-washy words falling from my lips.

Well, the rugs aren’t down yet and we have yet to replace the vanity light and sconce to match the chocolate-brown accents, but…

…last night DH approved.

“I just couldn’t see it until it was all put together.”

And that, my writer friends, is exactly why we need to spit-shine our submissions before sending them off to agents and editors or self-publishing them.

We must always, always send our very best.  It must not be the shell of an idea, stripped down to the paint on the wall.  Our manuscripts must be complete and compelling.  Touched up and accessorized perfectly to bring out the visions in our heads.

Only then can a reader appreciate what could be.  Because, until then, all they will see is a work in progress–a look that can be very ugly indeed.

Cat’s Guide to Avoiding Manuscript Vomit 

* If you feel compelled to send a different section of your manuscript than what is traditionally asked for, you’re not ready to query.

* If you “just finished writing my first novel”, you’re not ready for anything but a long break and a serious revision.

* If you made substantial changes to your manuscript during your last read-through, you’re not ready to unleash your writing on the reading public.

* If you feel as if replacing the faucet and countertop will make everything perfect, you must stop somewhere because you can’t afford a major remodel.  Which is the great thing about writing.  Every revision is free.  All it takes is time and dedication.

So, don’t sell yourself short by sending out a half-finished product.  Instead, take the time you need to satisfy your Inner Editor.  Listen to and learn all you can about the writing business.  I know you want your novel in the hands of readers right now.  So do I.  But, showing our babies to the world before they are truly ready will only garner rejections, negative reviews and heartbreak.

And the last thing we want to hear about our manuscripts is that they look like a hodge-podge of ideas and characters vomited onto the page.

So, go forth and remodel.  You have my permission.

Query Letter Face Lift

I’m not so concerned with aging that I’m willing to augment my smaller parts and suction my bigger ones.  I haven’t bought into botulism injections, nor have I chemically peeled my face.  I wear my wrinkles–each earned through loving my four children and all that they bring into my life–with pride.

Except when they get caught in a snapshot.  Frozen for all eternity.  I’ll admit, though not proudly, that I photo-shopped my crow’s feet out of our Christmas card this year.

It’s a simple fix, photo-shopping is.  It allows me to remain who I am every day–flawed, experienced, time-worn and uniquely me–yet do it gracefully in those moments of close-up scrutiny.

I’m sure those who know me by now get the correlation that’s coming.  Our manuscripts are the natural us.  They are robust and filled with character.  They are living, breathing entities that impact the lives of those who dare to read them.

Query letters are snapshots.  They show the flaws, the eye-baggage and gray hairs.  They can appear tired and worn-out.  And yet, this is the very image we send off to agents and editors in hopes that they will be so wowed with what they see they will beg us to come to dinner.

So, do yourself a favor and photo-shop your query letters.  Smooth out the wrinkles, augment what needs bigger and suction out the parts that over-power.   Don’t be afraid to tease out the inner beauty.

Cat’s Guide to Query Letter Face Lifts

  1.  Whiten that Smile: smiles can invite others into our world.  They encourage connection.  Frowns do the exact opposite.  In the same way, your hook entices or warns away your readers.
  2. Make Your Eyes Pop: the old window to the soul cliché is never more important to keep in mind than now.  Eyes can exude warmth, dance with humor, spark with anger or shimmer.  The eyes, my friends, is voice.  It is the tone of your query.  The personality.
  3. Clip Your Nose Hairs: gross, I know, but who can concentrate on a conversation when a black hair woodles in and out with every inhalation and exhalation?  Yeah, didn’t think so.  Cut the distracting subplots.  Limit your character count.  Instead, focus only on the most compelling points of your story.  Anything else is a distraction that can kill an otherwise great query.
  4. Smooth the Wrinkles: query letters are short, but they need to flow.  Word choice is of the utmost importance in creating a cohesive, yet lyrical piece of work.  The style your query letter is written in should reflect the style of your manuscript.  If your sentences ramble, an agent will assume your manuscript also rambles.  If your query is tight and evocative, so should your manuscript be.
  5. Get Out the Zit Stick: as a finishing touch, cover your blemishes.  At all costs, your query must not have typos or silly grammatical mistakes.

So, how do you fare in the query letter department?  How do you photo-shop your words to make the best impression? 

Curious minds want to know.

PS.  Hope your Valentine’s Muse is good to you today!