Writing a romance kissing scene

How to Write A Heart-Stopping Kissing Scene

There comes a time in writing a romance novel (even writing a YA romance!) when it’s time to, well, kiss and tell. Even if you’re writing a romance with no clichés, a first kiss is pretty much a given. Your characters are dying for it, your readers are definitely dying for it, and all the action of the story has built to this one moment. So how do you write a love scene that starts out with a kiss—and delivers everything the reader wants?

Build to the kiss to create romantic tension.
By the time your characters lock lips, they should be desperate to do it—whether they’re conscious of it or not. Each scene that precedes the kissing scene should build on the characters’ budding desire for each other, and the subtler, the better. Ground your character’s reactions in the physical (racing heart, fluttery stomach, hyperawareness of the other person’s presence) so that your reader knows they want to kiss the romantic interest long before they do.

Pick a good scene location.
Maybe your story naturally lends itself to the kiss occurring in a particular place—writing a fantasy romance with a long voyage? They’ll probably just have to kiss on the windswept face of a mountain—but if you can be flexible, try to change it up. Where’s a location that both characters feel comfortable? How about uncomfortable? What about a place they can’t stay in for long—tension! Or a place that’s just plain hilarious.

Throw a curveball.
Similarly, maybe there’s a reason your characters get to—or have to!—kiss that isn’t motivated by their own desires for each other. A school play, a need to create a distraction, a dare, a few too many beers…start with a convoluted premise and let the feelings play out. The suddenness of the kiss will shock the reader…and then delight her.

Don’t get too mushy.
“Is this a kissing book?” Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean you have to get goopy with your language. Keep your prose lean and your adjectives to a minimum; forget all the “limpid pools” and “soft as rose petals” and let your character’s authentic voice shine through. If they’re sarcastic, let them be a little funny and wry. If they’re angsty, let them struggle with the onslaught of emotion. Temper the romance with reality to keep it grounded and authentic.

Try not to name too many feelings.
Kissing is an overwhelming act of physical affection—so much so that people don’t tend to verbalize their emotions while they’re doing it. A character isn’t going to think “I’m so happy!” “This must be love!” when she’s kissing that cutie for the first time, so don’t take that shortcut for the sake of telegraphing to the reader what she’s feeling. Instead…

Use all your senses.
The great part about kissing (ahem) is that it involves so many physical sensations—touch, of course, but also (ahem again) taste. But don’t limit yourself to the obvious: consider what your characters are hearing, what their kissing partner looks and smells like, and generally what’s going on around them. How does the air feel around them? The couch they’re sitting on? THe smell of the sweaty house party? Don’t editorialize the kissing scene with too many labels; just notice every sensation they’re feeling and transcribe it to the page.

Leave your reader wanting more.
The first kiss isn’t the time for eternal promises. Even if this couple is going to get the happily ever after they deserve, the first kiss isn’t when they figure that out. Ending your first kiss scene with a pledge of fidelity isn’t just moving too fast—it’s boring. Without the question of whether the couple will end up together hanging in the air, the romance loses all its tension. Writing a good romantic scene at this stage in the manuscript (unless the first kiss is literally the last scene, or close to) means giving your reader a reason to keep going—and the only way to do that is to withhold the resolution.


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Seven Blog Post Ideas to Promote Your New Novel

Whether you’re traditionally published or an indie author, doing guest posts on blogs aimed at readers and writers is an excellent way to get the word out about a new release. But it’s easy to write one or two posts and then feel like you’re repeating yourself. Want some fresh ideas to hook in readers about your latest book? Here are some post ideas to get you going.

A Playlist
Do you listen to music while you work? Did a particular artist or soundtrack inspire your writing? Great! Throw together a shareable song list (in Spotify, for example) and write a few paragraphs about what the music means to you.

Character interview
Sit down with your main character and interview her as if you’re writing a newspaper article. It could be a straight-up profile of her as a person, or an interview more related to the plot of the book—whatever brings out her originality.

In-world newspaper article
Speaking of newspaper articles, you could also play journalist and write a piece from the perspective of a publication within the world of your story. What’s going on in there? Can you include some weather reports? Sports scores? Quotes from colorful characters on the street?

Draft comparison
For a more writing-focused blog, talking about your writing process can be a huge draw. But instead of trying to scare up some material about your “inspiration” (who can ever pin that down, anyway?) try something more concrete: pull out two copies of the same scene, one from an early draft and one from the final, and discuss what changed. You can either quote directly from the lines themselves and analyze word choice, or just give a bird’s-eye view of all the tracked changes and/or margin notes you made in the process. If you worked with an editor, you can have them chime in, too, to discuss their end of the process.

Cover process
Similarly, readers love peeking behind the curtain and seeing how covers get made. If you worked with the designer yourself, you can go in-depth about the discussions you two had, how you selected color scheme and artwork, and how you tweaked the design to get to the final product. If your publisher made the cover for you, you can ask for some in-process covers (if they’re okay sharing them) to discuss, or else just talk about why the cover works for you and how it represents your novel.

Title process
Finally, titles can and often do change—but you’d be surprised how few readers know that. Talk about what went into your original title, what it means to the book, why it changed (if it did change), and how you hope it’ll reflect the book to readers.

Surprising Things I Learned
A grab-bag post idea for when you’re coming up a little empty, this topic allows you to frame anything that you encountered on your publishing journey in a neat format. Make a list (like a Top 5) or just ruminate in paragraphs about all the unexpected lessons that cropped up along the way, and don’t hesitate to show some personality.

How to Write A YA Romance Without Cliché

YA fans are some of the most dedicated readers on the planet: they buy tons of books, tear through them voraciously, and worship the couples that earn their adoration. But write flat, stereotypical, or hackneyed, and these readers will not be pleased. The good news is, with a little smart revision (and not too much revision), you can make sparks fly. Whether you’re writing a fairy tale retelling, fantasy, or contemporary, here are some strategies for writing a romance that’s truly one in a million.

Cool it with all the physical description.
Do we need to know that your heroine has auburn hair, full lips, a sprinkling of freckles, and long eyelashes? Writing extensive paragraphs describing your characters is—no pun intended—a turn-off. It means you’re not trusting the reader to picture the characters herself, it slows down the action, and it weakens the writing overall. Use description as a springboard to establish the voice of the POV character, but don’t overdo it.

Avoid the oh-so-quirky factor.
There’s nothing wrong with the adorkable character: it works for Zooey Deschanel, and it works for many stories on the page. But there are some too-precious elements that can be huge turnoffs, not just to readers, but to agents, editors, and other industry pros, too. These include, but are not limited to: wearing Chuck Taylors, “half-smiling,” green eyes, curly hair, and anything that makes a heroine “not like other girls.” These things may seem original, but in fact, they’re tired and insufferable. Instead, branch out by writing heroes and heroines who don’t fit in the conventional modes of “beauty” and would normally be overlooked; that’s a real opportunity for nonconformism.

Make your characters imperfect.
This does not mean giving them small but forgivable charming qualities (see above), but instead, really digging deep and making them human. Write characters that are occasionally sloppy, mean, selfish, lazy, or rude. They need to feel like people—and teenage people at that. It’s okay to let them be cranky once in a while. Just so long as they don’t become unredeemable misanthropes, readers will appreciate the candor and authenticity of characters that gripe and flounder—rather than sail effortlessly—through life.

Dial back the physical beauty.
Similarly, don’t make your characters paragons of physical attractiveness. Not only does it reinforce cultural stereotypes of what’s “beautiful” and “acceptable” (e.g., girls who are white, thin, and able-bodied), but it makes your characters’ personalities worth less. If the love interest only likes your character for their looks, why should the reader assume there’s anything more to him or her?

NO instalove.
It’s what it sounds like: two characters that fall, well, instantly in love. Attraction takes time, and is confusing, and is often hidden under layers of competing feelings like envy, anxiety, or dislike. Don’t have your characters lay their feelings bare too early—it robs your story of momentum, and gives reviewers an easy slip-up to pounce on.

Cut out the tired phrasing.
“I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding.” “I melted at his touch.” “I shattered into a thousand pieces.” This bordering-on-purple prose will irk a reader at best, and at worst, make her throw the book across the room. Find unique ways to express your character’s inner monologue, and don’t rely on what YA is “supposed to sound like.” Some of the most romantic, unexpectedly sexy moments in romance use words and phrases that aren’t anywhere near the stock vocabulary of love and romance. Be creative.

Make it awkward.
Do you remember your first teenage kiss? Yeah, hardly a world-ending act of timeless romance. Let your characters miss, clack teeth, elbow each other in the ribs, and not know how to take off a bra. It’s not only genuine; it’s adorable.

Hold back on the HEA.
Many real-life lifelong romances blossom in high school, which is fantastic, adorable, and enviable! But let’s be real: most teen couples are not destined to be together forever and ever. And that’s okay! That doesn’t make the relationship any less powerful—in fact, it increases the intensity because the experience will end up being so formative for the characters. Don’t feel that you need to tack on some hint (or explicit epilogue—looking at you, JKR) that the characters all end up coupled forever until the end of time. Unlike adult romance, where a happily-ever-after is de rigueur, it’s okay to end a YA romance on a note of “happy for now,” or even of total uncertainty.


Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

What Agent Responses Really Mean

Querying is almost like online dating: as soon as a writer gets any indication of interest from an agent, they gather their writer friends and begin to pick apart every possible inference from the message.

Is she going to read more?

Does he like my writing?

Am I about to get the call?

It’s hard to tell, and every agent is different—plus, as with all parts of publishing, there are no guarantees. Everything is subjective! If you’re been writing strong queries and getting responses that stump you, here are some guidelines to decoding agent-speak.

If they’re responding to your query

I’m intrigued by this. Can you send me the partial manuscript?
It’s what it sounds like: they wanna read it. Some agents want to commit to a smaller chunk at first, just to get a feel for the story and the voice. Does it mean they think your story has less potential if they only want a partial? Not necessarily! It could just be a time saving method.

Can you include a synopsis?
Agh, the synopsis: the nightmare of many writers. Whether it’s 2 pages or 10 (or anywhere in between), this kind of plot summary can be a drag to write. So why do agents want them? Before they dive into a manuscript, they may want to make sure the bird’s-eye view of the plot is sound and logical. If your ending is muddled or your plot goes off the rails, you may be looking at a no—so don’t submit a fixer-upper and hope for the best! Make sure your plot is solid, and your synopsis reflects that.

Can you send me the full?
Great news! They want to read. This means you’ve broken through to the next step: no more, no less. Celebrate and then get moving on your next idea. Try not to dwell!

This sounds like a wonderful idea, but…
…it’s too close to something on my list.
The downside of hyper-specific manuscript wish lists is that agents may get flooded with a certain type of book, and by the time your query reaches them they may already have signed a client with a similar project. When they’re pitching editors, they want each project to stand on its own merits, so taking on too many Robin Hood-inspired fantasies, say, will overload their submission list. It’s not a reflection of your book!

…the market for this is too saturated right now.
Trends wax and wane, and agents are always paying attention to industry fluctuations. If they say this, it’s because they’ve spotted a lot of books in your niche getting picked up, making editors much less likely to want more. (Bear in mind that agents see deals reported years in advance of books hitting the shelves, so they can see trends that haven’t reached readers yet.) It’s discouraging news to get, but the upside is that it has nothing to do with the quality of your book, and another agent may totally disagree.

…it’s not to my taste.
Taste is taste. If an agent isn’t feeling your book, nothing can make her change her mind. You want an agent that’s passionate about your work, not meh on it. So move on to the next!

Dear author, thank you for your query…
A form rejection stings, no doubt about it. But agents are busy and can’t respond to everything personally. If they get 50 queries a day and take two minutes to respond to each, that’s almost two hours of (unpaid) work every day! (Remember, agents are paid on commission, so only selling rights to books makes them money.) There’s no point in parsing the phrasing of a form rejection; they’re standardized by the agent and simply don’t contain meaning specific to your book. Throw another iron in the fire and don’t look back.

If they’re responding to your manuscript

I loved the voice/characters/etc. but had concerns about the plot/pacing/etc.
Concrete feedback is good. Whether you end up revising for this agent, or just in general, you’ve gotten specific criticism in where your book could be better from an industry professional—even if it’s a rejection, that’s a compliment to your work. Sometimes the agent will leave the door open for a “revise and resubmit,” or “R&R,” which means they want you to do just that: fix the issues and send it back. You don’t have to do this; if you disagree with the feedback, there’s no obligation to follow the advice just for the sake of maybe landing an agent. Remember, you want an agent who’s passionate about your work, not trying to change it beyond recognition. If it’s ultimately a rejection, though, don’t push back. A no is a no, and they’ve already done you the favor of sharing some thoughts. A polite thank you is all you need to send back.

I just didn’t connect with it.
The dreaded missed connection. What does it mean? It’s hard to make general statements for ALL agents, but in many cases this means the agent loved the concept of your story (based on your query), but for them, the execution fell flat. This is often a case of a weak, less than compelling voice. If you’re getting consistent non-connects, it may be time to have an editor look at your work.

This one isn’t right for me, but please resubmit in the future.
The mixed bag. A personal invitation to query in the future is a big positive, so try not to dwell on the rejection and get to work on your next project. If you do re-query, refresh the agent’s memory about your first submission when you submit.

If you have no response yet

Agents are busy. At any given time they’re revising with clients, preparing submissions lists, meeting with editors, negotiating contracts, chasing payments, selling foreign or audio rights, attending a conference, or, yes, reading queries. So they simply haven’t gotten to your query yet! Remember, agents are only paid with their author clients are paid; they prioritize client work to keep the lights on. No response yet is just that: no response. If an agent says a certain number of weeks with no answer is a rejection, then it’s a rejection. If not, keep waiting and try not to stress!


Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

11 Words Every Fantasy Language Needs

Inventing languages is a crucial—and fun—part of fantasy novel worldbuilding. Words unique to a country, region, people, or race give the world texture and depth that can’t come from ordinary words alone. But inventing a solid, believable, and rich fantasy language is about more than just throwing together weird-sounding combinations of words; when done properly, the language is creates conflict, reveals character, and even provides crucial solutions to the plote (can you say “Speak friend and enter”?)

Here are eleven words your fantasy language has to have.

Swear words
Swear words, curses, and oaths represent the immediate, impulsive instincts of your character, and so they often reveal lots about the psychology of the people who speak your language. Are the swear words religious in nature? Scatalogical? Do they reference societal taboos?

Similarly, insults are a necessary part of every language, and an excellent opportunity to weave in information about the societal mores of your speakers. What is the gravest insult a person could be called in your language?

Terms of Endearment
Ah, love. The flip side of insults are pet names and sweet nothings that people in your language’s society call each other. What do they value and prize? Consider how in English, we have not only a lot of sugar-related words (“honey,” “sweetie,” “sugar”) but value-related words (“dear” can also mean “expensive”—compare “mon cher” in French). In French, however, a parent or lover might refer to “mon petit chou”—my little cabbage! You can also creative diminutives—versions of words that imply smallness or youth (like “kitten” for “cat,” for example). Be creative and think about your society’s nearest and dearest things when crafting.

People who outrank your characters will need some term of address that conveys deference and honor—think “your Majesty” or the Japanese suffix “-san.” How will characters of lower rank speak to those of higher rank? Do the words have any literal meaning?

How many levels of “hello” and “goodbye” does your language have? What do the words literally mean? Many languages use “peace” as a greeting (or valediction). Some are imperatives (like the Latin “ave”). Some are more extended, idiomatic phrases.

“Untranslatable” words
Language is a reflection of mindset, and your characters are from an unfamiliar society that you’re building. What concepts does their culture have that don’t translate neatly into English (or the primary language of your text)? Consider words like “tsundoku” (the act of letting reading materials pile up) in Japanese, or “saudade” (a feeling of longing or nostalgia) in Portuguese.

A kenning is a term from Old English poetry that refers to a word construction out of two smaller words, whose meanings, when combined, take on a new, non-literal significance. For example, in modern English, a “passport” lets you pass through a port, i.e. a metaphorical door to another place. Combining two words of your language to create a new, deeper, or more abstract word adds depth.

Demonyms refer to the name for a person from a particular place—e.g. a Floridian, a Canadian, a Parisian, a Brit, a Scot. How do the names of cities, countries, and regions translate into demonyms? Don’t merely employ the form that we use in English; consider adding a prefix to modify your place names.

Of course, specific dishes need names, but also consider the differences between food in the field and food on a plate: in English, we have “pigs” in the barnyard, but “pork” on the dinner table. The reason for this difference is the Norman invasion in 1066 CE, when French-speaking invaders took over the nobility and referred to their cooked dishes by Norman French terms. The Anglo-Saxons in the farms, however, retained their native words. Consider how such a divide could reflect social stratification—or something else significant—in your fantasy world.

All literate societies have common texts that speakers know of, if not know by heart. (For example, almost every English speaker will recognize “To be, or not to be.”) What phrases do your speakers know from their society’s written corpus, and what significance do they hold?

Sacred words
Similarly, any religious society (or a society with a strong moral code) will have prayers, blessings, and benedictions. What formulaic language do your characters use to ask for divine assistance?


Want to download a language-building worksheet?

Seven Great Podcasts for Writers

Got a long commute (or a long workout) and need a productive way to pass the time? Fire up one of our favorite writing-related podcasts and get craft advice and inspiration on the go!

Writing Excuses
A huge favorite among writers, this podcast is hosted by Dan Wells, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Tayler.

The Narrative Breakdown
Plotting, writing craft, and author interviews about all things story, with a great backlog of episodes.

Upvote YA
The official podcast of the r/YAWriters subreddit is hosted by members of the group and goes in-depth on the topics discussed in the subreddit.

Shipping and Handling
Literary agents Bridget Smith and Jennifer Udden talk about the industry, agent life, and more.

Print Run
Another agent podcast hosted by Laura Zats and Erik Hane, with lots of good industry info that makes for edutaining listening.

First Draft with Sarah Enni
Enni hosts interviews with a host of impressive authors, including Beth Revis, Libba Bray, Veronica Roth, and many, many more.

88 Cups of Tea
Yin Chang hosts this excellent series of interviews with creative types ranging from literary agents to novelists.

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

Is Your Twitter Presence Helping—Or Hurting?—Your Writing Career?

Twitter is THE BEST in a lot of ways: it connects writers who are far apart, it clues readers in to new releases in their favorite genre, and it allows authors to look for agents and editors who might be interested in their work. But like lots of social media, it pays (sometimes literally!) to use it with smarts and style. A dodgy Twitter feed can actually work AGAINST your writing career—and no one wants that. Just like querying mistakes, these are little things you may not even realize you’re doing! Here’s what to look out for.

Helps: You reach out to other authors.
Getting to know other writers—for solidarity, for commiseration, for critique—is one of the hugest benefits of social media. But to reap those benefits, you have to say hi! If you’re chatting back and forth with your writer peers, nicely done.

Hurts: You reach out to ONLY other authors.
It’s easy to get trapped in a bubble of fellow writers and never venture into the wider world of book Twitter. Be sure to vary your feed (and interactions) with industry publications, publishing professionals, and useful writing blogs.

Helps: You share useful tips.
Whether it’s a quick #writetip or a retweet of a helpful post, sharing writing help is a great way to establish a presence as a useful resource (i.e., someone worth following!)

Hurts: You share nothing but (or mostly) self promo.
Tweeters are smart: they know an ad when they see one, and it can be a huge turnoff. There’s nothing wrong with using your social media to show off new releases, sales, or special deals, but constant repetitive tweets about your book aren’t engaging. And statistically, they don’t convert into sales at NEARLY the rate of a newsletter or a freebie book in a Facebook ad!

Helps: You act like a human.
Tweeting like you talk, sharing photos of your workspace (or vacation!), and generally being, well, personable shows that you’re not just there to promote and network. Social media craves authenticity!

Hurts: You act like a robot.
Constant scheduled tweets, or, even worse, the dread “thanks for the follow, buy my book!” auto-DM are at best ignorable and at worst extremely irritating and can earn you an instant unfollow. Don’t be pushy!

Helps: You are professional and polite.
Especially when interacting with agents, editors, contest admins, or any pros, keeping it respectful and kind is always a good look. They’ll remember you as someone who’s on top of it!

Hurts: You overshare, bully, subtweet, or whine.
Describing your stomach flu in gory detail, picking on other authors, vaguely tweeting about publishing pros who’ve rejected your work, or complaining about how hard it is to get readers or sales—just don’t. Nothing screams “unprofessional” like someone who uses a public forum to air grievances. Find a trusted friend to vent to—offline.

The Pros and Cons of Online Writing Contests

These days, writers can participate in a bevy of contests, pitch fests, and mentorships with a single click. They’re popular for a host of reasons—but they also have their drawbacks. If your social media presence is already helping (and not hurting!) your career, a contest could give you the push you need…or it could stop you in your tracks. Consider some of these upsides and downsides before entering.

Pro: online contests are—generally—free.
Unlike conferences, with their registration fees, travel costs, and time required to get there, an online contest has way fewer barriers to entry. If you’re on a budget or far away from local in-person events, they can be a wonderful option.

Con: the expertise of the judges can vary.
However, unlike a professional conference, where faculty are often paid (and therefore vetted to make sure the organizers get their money’s worth!), online contests can deem more or less anyone a judge—and publishing and writing expertise runs the gamut. Before you enter, consider whether the judges are truly people whose feedback you’d value and trust.

Pro: contests help you find fellow writers.
Even if you don’t get selected as a participant, the hashtag will point you to a host of other folks doing just what you’re doing—writing books. As long as you’ve got a professional, engaging Twitter presence, you’re bound to make friends.

Con: it’s time spent NOT writing.
Prepping for and entering online contests can be a real time suck…time you’d otherwise spend drafting or revising. Be judicious and decide whether all that prep work will detract from the heart of your writing career: writing.

Pro: it’s a kick in the butt to get revising.
If you’ve been sitting on a manuscript for months—or years!—without sending it out, a contest can be a great motivator. It’s a great excuse to iron out all the weak parts of your query letter and give your pages a final polish. Nothing fuels inspiration like a deadline, after all.

Con: ten-pages syndrome.
On the other hand, because contest entries are usually just a query or short excerpt, it’s easy to get sucked into revising the first pages—and only the first pages—over and over again. If you’re seeking traditional publication, make sure that the rest of your manuscript lives up to your shiny first 10.

Pro: you have a chance to get valuable critique.
Especially if you don’t work regularly with a crit partner or beta reader, contests can give you that invaluable early read, along with feedback that could transform your book. Good critique can be a huge motivator to keep going.

Con: you have a chance to get critique that dings your self-esteem
Contest critique, like all critique, is subjective. If you have thin skin, getting a harsh critique can be discouraging and maybe even make you give up entirely. If you’re not sure you’re ready, find a trusty (and kind!) critique partner, beta reader, or professional editor to work with first.


Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

8 Query Mistakes You May Not Realize You’re Making

Writing a query letter to pitch an agent, editor, or mentor is one of the most nerve wracking steps to becoming a published writer. And a query letter is so short! Ask most writers if they’d rather write a query or a whole entire new novel, and you can bet lots will say the latter. And no matter how long a writer sweats over those three short paragraphs, there are a few inadvertent mistakes that can stop her reading in her tracks. If your query hasn’t been getting the traction you want, take a good hard look and see if you’ve done any of the following:

You’re too casual.
All agents, editors, and mentors want you to sound like a human. And these days it’s easier than ever to look up publishing pros on Twitter and learn everything from their dog’s name to their favorite flavor of ice cream. But a query letter is first and foremost a business letter. Sending a solid query that is professional, well-written, and compliant with any peculiar parts of an agent’s submission guidelines shows that you take your writing—and yourself—seriously. It’s the first step in demonstrating to a prospective agent, editor, or mentor that you’re someone who will be easy and professional to work with.

You didn’t follow directions.
Query directions can be maddeningly specific: attachment! No attachment! Five pages pasted in! But agents ask for those specs for a reason, and whatever that reason is, you gotta follow it. At a time when agents are more swamped than ever—overflowing slush inboxes, editorial work with current clients, endless negotiations over every last clause in the contract—agents are, frankly, too busy to bother with queries that don’t follow their rules. (Remember, every minute an agent spends reading submissions is a minute she can’t use to sell books—i.e., to make money.) More than that, getting the specifics right is a strong indication that you can be trusted to figure things out on your own. An author who is a self-starter and a fast learner is always a welcome addition to an agent’s stable of talent.

Your comp titles are outdated, huge bestsellers, or missing entirely.
“Comp” titles are books that are similar to yours (i.e., the COMPetiton, or those that are COMParable). Well-selected comp titles help your agent begin to envision the potential market for your novel, which is a huge help to them—they may even start envisioning which editors might want it! But comp titles only work if they’re culturally relevant in the current marketplace and truly comparable to your book. If you say your book is like The Catcher in the Rye, that’s all well and good—it very well may be—but to an agent, that can read like a major red flag that you haven’t read a YA book in decades. Similarly, saying your book is like Harry Potter or Twilight is more or less meaningless; you’d be better off picking more niche fantasy or paranormal titles that reflect the content (as opposed to the bestseller potential) of your book. Don’t have comps? Poke around Amazon and read through a few books in the category to see who’s doing a similar thing, then add them to your third paragraph: “my book is a YA high fantasy that will be enjoyed by readers of X title and Y title.”

You have a wonky word count.
How long is your book? Know what’s expected for your genre (check out this post for YA and MG guidelines), and know that word counts over a certain amount (around 90,000 words) will raise eyebrows. Also, always round your word count to the nearest thousand words: word counts calculated in word processors aren’t precise, and a rounded off word count is more professional.

You waste time.
“I’m querying you because…” “Have you ever wondered if…” “My novel is about…” “What would you do if…” Axe it! Get to the meat of your plot and characters, and avoid rhetorical questions like the plague. You want your query as lean as possible.

You’re too vague—especially about your ending.
You shouldn’t give EVERYTHING away, of course, but avoid using vague, nonspecific language whenever you can. “Her powers will be tested” is much weaker than “She’ll have to draw every ounce of her fire magic to save her brother.” And never end with any variation on “if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book!”

You include too many characters.
Queries don’t have a ton of space. Even if your book has a wonderful ensemble cast, not every character is an A-lister. It’s fine to call characters “her best friend” or “his parents” and allow the reader to digest the information without getting bogged down in a sea of proper names.

You don’t end with a call to action—or say thanks.
This isn’t a mistake per se, but it’s good form (and polite!) nonetheless. All you need is a quick “thank you for your time and consideration. May I send you the manuscript?” Boom. Done.


Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

How to Write A Fairy-Tale (or Other Story!) Retelling That Sells

There’s a reason readers flock to retellings of fairy tales, folk tales, and other classic stories: they already love them. In fact, most writers of retellings probably start those projects because they love the source material, too.

A retelling takes a story that everyone (or many people!) knows, and changes some key elements (setting, for example) so that it becomes a new, but still recognizable, story. Authors like Gregory Maguire, Marissa Meyer, and Danielle Page have seen huge success taking these beloved tales and making them their own, and readers are consistently excited for more. So how can you craft a retelling that’s intriguing, entertaining, and original?

Pick a story you love.
Don’t settle on a tale for retelling just because it seems like it’d sell. (That pretty much never works, even if you’re not writing a retelling!) You should have some personal connection with this story, whether it’s one you loved as a child, or one you’ve newly discovered.

Make sure you can use that story.
Not everything is fair game for retelling. Anything that isn’t in the public domain is unlikely to get a go-ahead, because you’re infringing on someone else’s intellectual property. So more recently published books—or pretty much any original movie—are out. Double check before you invest too much time into a project. However, all fairy tales, folk stories, Arthurian legends, Robin Hood stories, Shakespeare, and so on are totally fair game.

Make sure it’s not too obscure.
Readers connect to retellings because they already have expectations going in. If your readers don’t recognize the obscure Grimm’s fairy tale you’ve chosen to adapt (The Girl Who Trod On The Loaf, say), it’s not going to resonate with them. Think broadly when you pick source material so that you don’t lock your potential readers out.

Figure out what to change.
A retelling has to have some element that’s different from the original—that’s what makes it retold. You have an arsenal of craft techniques at your disposal: you could update the setting to modern times (or set it in a different historical era), you could change the POV from the hero/heroine to the villain (or another side character), you could change the format (a diary, a novel in verse), or switch genres entirely (sci-fi, anyone?)

Tinker with the plot.
Some (okay, most) fairy tales hinge on paper-thin motivation and nonexistent stakes. Think hard about what could get your characters into the starting situation, and what kinds of emotional depth will motivate them to take the actions that set the story in motion. Don’t count on the source material doing all the work for you—in a fairy tale, that’s fine, but in a novel? No way.

Think of what’s done before.
The downside of the popularity of retellings is that there are a lot already out there. Is yours really bringing something new to the table? If you have, for example, a Cinderella retelling where Cinderella is part cyborg, it’s going to be tough to make the case to an agent, editor, or even reader that your story is appreciably different from Cinder. 

Know your audience.
If you’re changing genre or age category, be sure to keep in mind what your readers will expect. If you’re writing YA, for example, eon’t get too bogged down in the source material to forget to include all the appropriate tropes that draw readers to those books: romance, teenage awkwardness, banter, etc.

Decide how to adapt (or update) details.
Some stories are, for lack of a better word, hella dated. Old tales run rampant with misogyny, sexism, racism, and other damaging tropes. If you’re going to contend with those in your story, work carefully, do research, and consider hiring sensitivity readers to help you navigate your changes.
Also, your chosen story may have magical or otherwise logistically impossible elements that don’t fit in with your chosen retelling setting. Are you going to leave them in, craft an alternate explanation, or bend the plot to skirt them entirely?

Make sure it’s truly a retelling.
Finally, not all stories that use recognizable tropes really are retellings. If your high concept pitch is “Romeo and Juliet, but in present-day, and the families aren’t actually fighting, and they end up happily ever after,” you don’t have a retelling on your hands—you have an original story. And that’s fine! Things adapt and change and grow as you write them, and that doesn’t mean your idea is any less feasible. You’ll probably just want to remove the source material from your pitch, or risk confusing potential readers when your novel doesn’t deliver exactly that.


Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.