Help It Isn’t Selling!

You’ve written a top notch manuscript. You’ve shopped it around, and you get so many positive comments. But ultimately the answer is no. No one is buying what you’re selling or at least they aren’t buying this manuscript. Why not?

Don’t you wish that agents, editors, and publishers would give you more than a “no thank you”? But the reality is that you very seldom get a specific reason that goes beyond the form letter statement “I just don’t love it enough.”

There are a number of reasons that your work may not be selling. Let look at just a few.

Not a First Book

If you don’t have a book out already, the reality may be that the book you are shopping around just isn’t strong enough to be a first book. It has to be a book that will pull in reader, and editors, who have no clue who you are and are willing to pick it up although you have no track record.

The cure? Wait until you have another book.

Market Fit

It could also be that for some reason your book isn’t a good fit for the current market. Maybe no one is buying YA that is that long. Or they don’t want a trio of kids solving the problem.

The cure? Sometimes you can just wait it out. After all, Harry Potter showed many people that young readers could handle massive texts. But really it is best to write another book. This one might make a good second or third book.

Not Quite Strong Enough

There are also a lot of manuscripts being shopped around that are fun but just not quite strong enough. Maybe the characters are good but the plotting is weak. Maybe the stakes aren’t high enough but your descriptions draw readers in. Whatever it the weakness is, it is there.

Agents and editor both have a lot on their plot. Sure, many of them take on imperfect manuscripts but they have to be passionate to put in the work. That’s why “just don’t love it enough” really is a reason.

The cure? Keep writing. Take classes. Find a good critique group.

The reality is that writers write. And you want to keep growing as a writer so that you don’t stagnate. You want this year’s work to be better than two years ago. Write and submit. Write and grow and submit some more. And don’t forget to rewrite. We all do a lot of rewriting!


Rewriting: Cutting Excess Words

Yesterday a friend sent out a copy of her manuscript.  She’s added everything she needs to add and cut everything she can cut.  But it is still too long and she needs to cut about 1/4 of the overall length.

Here are the steps that I take when confronted with this task.

Paragraph Level

First things first, I examine each section and/or paragraph. Every once in a while duplicate or similar information sneaks in and I spot a whole section I can cut.

Then there are the paragraphs that just don’t move things forward or go into way too much details. When 1000 words need to go it is nice to find 500 words that I can compress into one or two hundred.

But what about those marvelous details? Just in case I realize that I need some of them later, I copy and paste to a file I call “stuff.” It seems like a lot of writers do this. I just spoke to a woman that calls her cut file “blah blah.”


Next I make sure that sentence structure is as efficient as it can be. When things are inefficient, I’ve noticed it is usually because the order isn’t chronological or cause then effect. So that tends to be my next fix.

This is also where I look for a strong verb that I can use vs using a weak verb and an adverb. Specific nouns can also replace general nouns with a lot of description. Think about it. “Gate-leg table” is so much briefer and more specific than “a table with a leaf that folds up, supported by a leg that swings out.” Not that that is a particularly good description but hopefully you get the point.

Problem Words

Once the duplicate paragraphs are gone and the sentence structure is efficient, I go after problem words. My own personal problem words?  “That” and “start.”

“Start” is definitely a word that we need in certain sentences such as “school starts tomorrow.”  But other times it is filler.  “He started to talk.”  “She started toward the door.”  “I started writing.”  How much better to write something more concrete.  “He spoke.”  “She strode to the door.”  “I wrote.”

I have to admit that I laughed at the infographic below on filler words.  When my son imitates me he says, “Well, actually…”  I don’t use the phrase in my writing but it is my verbal tag line.

Check out this infographic by Grammar Check.  Do you have filler words or phrases that didn’t make the list?  Mention them in the comments below.


Early Reader vs Picture Book

One of my writing friends has been working on an early reader so we were talking about the Mr. Putter and Tabby books. As a result, I ended up checking out several from my local library. It was great to revisit these old friends. I found myself laughing aloud at SPIN THE YARN.

As much as I love these books, critique was tricky. The problem is that most writers are at least vaguely familiar with picture book conventions but we are clueless when it comes to early readers. Unfortunately, you need to know about a type of book before you can critique a manuscript.

Here are a few ways that early readers and picture books compare.


Both early readers and picture books are fully illustrated. In a picture book, the illustrations expand on the text. This is one of the reasons that you leave many of the visual details out of a picture book manuscript. They can be provided by the illustrator. Additionally, the illustrations can add a whole dimension to the text.

In an early reader, the pictures provide many visual details. But the point isn’t to add to the story. The point is to help new readers decipher the text. That’s actual the entire point behind these books. Telling stories that new readers can access on their own.

a little If you aren’t familiar with early readers, these are the books for brand new readers. They are easier to read than picture books but offer the reward of chapters and a smaller “big kid” format.


Because of this, there is a certain amount of repetition in an early reader. Not only do you try to reuse words, you often restate ideas. Here is one example from SPIN THE YARN.

“Sometimes Mr. Putter

was not sure if he

was a good neighbor.

All he did was eat Mrs. Teaberry’s food.

“All I do is eat Mrs. Teaberry’s food,”

Mr. Putter told Tabby one day.

“I should do something nice for her.”

The same basic idea around eating her food it stated twice on one page. In a picture book, you would cut one of them to preserve your precious word count. Not so in an early reader.


How a manuscript is formatted varies from picture book to early reader. In a picture book, you format it in standard paragraphs much like the ones you see here on my blog.

In an early reader, you break things into easy-to-handle phrases. When you are accustomed to looking at standard paragraphs, it looks strange. But this is how it is done in the early reader.

Dialogue is also punctuated a bit differently. Here is an example from CLEAR THE DECKS.

“No, no,” said Mr. Putter. “We are bored.

It is hot, the days are long,

and we have no orangesicles.”

The temptation here would be to add opening quotes again before It is hot… Resist! This is not punctuated like multiple paragraphs of dialogue by one speaker.

Early readers have their own conventions. They may look a little strange to those of us used to submitting in other formats but as always, the key it to submit your work the way the editor wants to receive it.


Invisible: How to Characterize a Group

First my review of a most excellent middle grade graphic novel. The tag says it all – how can you be yourself when no one sees the real you?

Think of this as a Latine Breakfast Club. Five students who need their service hours are assigned to work together in the cafeteria. Why? Because they are all Mexican and one student is expected to translate for the group.

The problem? He speaks only rudimentary Spanish. And he’s Puerto Rican. But that’s okay, the others are Cuban, Venezuelans . . . oh, you get the point. The adults have lumped these kids into a single group. It is up to them to figure out who they want to be and what that means.

Excellent book! I would highly recommend it for classroom and library shelves. And, if you have a young reader struggling to figure out who they are, pick up this book for them as well.

Whether you are writing middle grade fantasy, ala Harry Potter, or a chapter book mystery, shades of the Boxcar Children, each character within your group needs to be unique. This point and how to do it were driven home by Invisible.

First things first, you need a spokes character. This character isn’t always going to take center stage but this character will often be the one doing the talking. In this case, it is because the principal appointed George as the group spokesperson. And the name alone indicates 90% of the problem. He goes by George, not Gorge. He’s 100% American even if that isn’t how everyone sees him.

Next you need to come up with ways to make each of your other characters unique.

  • The seated girl is Sara. She is a quiet loner who actually has a lot to say. She’s the only one who is both a good student and fluent in both English and Spanish.
  • Standing beside George is rich Niko. Everyone thinks he has it made but he’s struggling to fit in even as his parents try to make it to the US to join him. His housing situation is rocky and he worries about becoming homeless.
  • In the back are Miguel and Dayara. Miguel’s dad wants him to focus on baseball, but Miguel wants to focus on art. Dayara acts like a tough but she’s having troubles learning to read English, yet she’s willing to take the fall for her friends.

Even if you think of your characters as “the gang,” you need to find a way to make each one unique. Each needs to have their own voice and their own goals, separate from the group. Once you’ve figured that out, you can figure out how they will work together. Me? I’ve got some thinking to do.


3 Questions to Answer Before You Start Writing

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I love it when I come across a piece of writing advice that goes beyond the genre that the speaker writes. Some time ago, I was watching a webinar on writing memoir led by Paul Bradley Carr. It wasn’t enough, in his opinion, to reach the end of the manuscript. He wanted the listeners to be able to create something that would be marketable.

What can I say? I love speakers who give us advice we can use.

To have any hope to create a commercially viable memoir, ala Carr, you need to be able to answer these three questions.

  1. Do you have something specific to say? This can’t be a vague piece about parenting. It has to be specific. Maybe your experience was in parenting a gifted child or triplets. That’s specific.
  2. Will this topic resonate with others? 6 percent of all students are gifted. Approximately 1 in 10,000 pregnancies results in triplets.
  3. Can you help in some way? Will your piece inspire or solve a problem? You can’t just be relatable. You need to be useful.

As Carr discussed these questions, it hit me that this approach goes beyond memoir. Truly, it is essential to all nonfiction writers. It doesn’t do any good to write any nonfiction piece that is vague or unrelatable.

For the sake of discussion, you are all about cooking. You want to write books that teach young readers how to put a nutritious, delicious meal together. If you create a proposal for a book that is going to teach readers to make breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks for all four seasons and for people with a wide range of dietary needs . . .

Let’s just say that the Joy of Cooking has already been written. You need to be more specific.

Maybe you want to create a book for kids who are vegan or lactose intolerant. Or this is all about misleading food (looks like a cake pop but it’s a meatball). You need to have a slant. But you also need to show that there is a market for your slant. Misleading food? That might be a tough sell but you could make an argument for pirate food if you can provide stats for Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Can you help? Kids are good with straight up fun but you want adults to spend their money. What skills are you teaching? How are you helping build up their young learner. Be specific.

Whether you are writing a query letter or a nonfiction proposal, answers to these three questions will help sell your work.


How to Create Witty Repartee

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on

Whether you call it repartee, banter, or back and forth, witty dialogue is a great way to pull readers into your story. But wit is only going to go so far, and, if you want to keep your readers involved, this type of dialogue has be more than amusing. Here are three tips to make it sing:


In real life, something truly genius is said only once in a very long conversation. Witty? That can also take a while to come about. More often than not, we think of the truly gifted retort only hours later. But when you are crafting dialogue for your story, you need to get there much faster. We’ve all suffered through painful conversations but your readers have to do that in life. They don’t want to do it in literature.

Unless you make it matter. Does your character make a blunder that reveals something they found out by snooping. Do it! But again, do it fairly fast.

Don’t Shut the Reader Out

Often banter in real life revolves around being on the inside. I’m in my church choir. My friend and I are horrible with the banter and the inside jokes. Ninety percent of the time no one else knows what we are talking about. We have to limit it because we don’t want to other people to feel like outsiders.

If another character feels like an outsider, that is one thing. But you have to make sure that your reader knows what is going on and is in on the joke.

Make It Matter

Again, this is one of those times that real life and literature diverge. Witty repartee in real life is fine for its own sake. For your story, you need to make it matter. Are your characters flirting? That’s fine as long as the sexual attraction means something to the story or is a distraction, a red herring.

Or maybe your character is hinting at something that they know. It could be a means of threatening another character, “I know something you don’t want to get out.” Or it could be a fishing expedition because your character thinks that they may know something. If only they can get their verbal opponent to slip up.

Banter is amusing. There’s no doubt about it. But remember that as a writer you have to make every word count – even the clever ones.


Uniquely Universal: The Keys to a Winning Story

Photo by Anna Pyshniuk on

Write the story that only you can write. Make it your own. It should be as unique as you are.

Got it? Good. Because we hear this advice frequently and this isn’t one I’m going to debunk. If your story isn’t unique, it is a carbon copy and publishers don’t want things that aren’t original.

But you also need to have a universal element. These universals act as bridges inviting readers into the world of your story.

I had a lesson in both earlier in the week. This year, the Bible study for Presbyterian women is on the sabbath. One of the things that we discussed was the sabbath of our childhoods. Most of us grew up in the St. Louis area where there were blue laws until the 1980s. These laws meant that the only retail available on Sundays was the grocery store. This meant no recreational shopping, no theaters, and so on.

Sounds restrictive? That’s how almost everyone in the group felt about it.

Not surprisingly, I was one of the hold outs. I loved Sundays. We went to church and then I went home with my grandparents. We had lunch. We watched movies — frequently Abbott and Costello or John Wayne. My grandfather and I would putter around in the yard. Maybe I would do a puzzle. At some point we all got our books out. It was divine!

If I wrote a story about this and how I felt about it, it would be unique. So I would have to find one or more universals to act as a bridge to bring readers into the story world.

Surprisingly, the bridge for our discussion was pie crust. Every single person remembered their mother or grandmother baking extra pie crust with cinnamon and sugar. This was a special memory for everyone although the crust form varied. My grandmother used small cookie cutters to shape it. Another woman’s mother twisted it. Yet another mom patted out a circle that she cut into wedges. But no matter. We had already connected over memories of crust.

So how do you do this in your story? Whether you are writing a speculative piece set in a future world or a piece of historic fiction set in Katmandu, you need to find universals that your readers will recognize. Often these universals come in the form of emotion. What are the things that make people feel cherished? Curious? Frightened? Angry? The emotion that you use is going to vary depending on the story and what emotion you want your reader to feel.

At first, it sounds contradictory. Make your story unique and make it universal. But noodle it over and you’ll find a way to do both!


Unexpected Inspiration

What does a stainless steel tree have to do with writing and books? It is all about surprises and inspiration.

We made a trip down to the St. Louis Art Museum last weekend because I wanted to see the exhibit on silks from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. I’ve recovered from a tendon issue and am again knitting and crocheting and want to get my loom back out. It was time for some color inspiration.

As we were walking from the parking lot to the museum, we stopped to admire the reflecting pool at the base of Art Hill. When we turned around to face the museum, I looked past the statue of Louis XIV and around one corner of the building I spotted a silver tree. What is that?

This stainless steel sculpture isn’t new, but somehow this was the first time I had spotted it. I mean really. It is as big as a tree!

But inspiration is a lot like that. I expected to go to the museum and be inspired by all of the glorious textiles. And I was. I noted the hanging (see below) created for a 60th birthday celebration and how contemporary it looked. Sorry for the reflections in the glass. They didn’t seem to take my obsessive need to take photos into consideration.

In spite of the 100s of Chinese dragons that I’ve seen in art of various kinds, this time something hit me. They look surprisingly like the local piasa painted on the bluffs outside of Alton, IL. If you’ve never seen the piasa, it looks like a dragon and has the face of a man with stag’s horns and lion’s feet. In the weavings, the dragons had expressive faces, horns, and clawed hands. The clouds around them looked much like wings.

Inspiration is so much like a trip to the Art Museum. You’re going about your merry way when all of a sudden – HEY! WRITE ABOUT ME! It will be interesting to see what stories this trip inspires.


Banned Books Week and Soft Censorship

When a book isn’t banned outright, it can be tempted to heave a sigh of relief. At least people can still read it. Right?


For those of you who aren’t familiar with soft bans, this is when a school or a district doesn’t entirely remove a book. Instead, the book is removed from library shelves to be kept in a safe area. Students can check them out if they have parental permission.

This means yet another piece of paper for parents to sign. Another piece of paper for school staff to deal with. And the assumption that a young reader will go up to the librarian and ask for this restricted book.

And, yes. There are young readers who will. My son would have been at the desk every time he entered the library. Maybe it would be because he wanted to read the book. But it would be even more likely that he wanted to stir something up. He has that type of personality. Where oh where did that come from? Ahem.

But then there are the young readers who may need to read about an LGTBQ character much like themselves. Will they have the nerve to ask for the book?

And all of this assumes that the young reader even knows that a particular book exists. A lot of books are discovered simply because someone sees the book and thinks, “This looks interesting.”

This is Banned Books Week. I thought this poster giving details about banning was pretty interesting. Why do people ban books? By and large, they would say that they are protecting the children. For some. ideas and people that are different are very scary things.

Sadly, many of the books that are challenged, either with a soft ban or an actual ban, are challenged because of gender, sexual, or racial content. I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t parent but by narrowing access to a book, you aren’t parenting just your child. You’re parenting mine. And really, we all know why my kid is the one who would demand a restricted book.

What banned book are you reading this week? To read more about soft bans, check out this article.


Book Tour for The House on Linden Way by Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

The book is a ghost story with elements of horror and Gothic suspense. 

I am taking part in the blog tour for The House on Linden Way by Elizabeth Maria Naranjo. As you can see from the blog tour banner (above) my post reviewing the book will go live on October 3rd. From the press release:

This is a perfect October read – and here’s a bit more about The House on Linden Way

While passing through her hometown a decade after she left, Amber Blake impulsively revisits her old house on Linden Way. She only means to stay a moment, to show her three-year-old daughter Bee the place where she grew up. But when the kindly new owners invite them inside, Amber cannot resist.

Soon Bee is missing, the owners have disappeared, and Amber finds herself in a houseful of ghosts. Time takes on new meaning as she loses herself in living memories and a past that does not wish to be forgotten. 

As Amber fights the powerful lure of a childhood she’d long left behind, her tenuous hold on the real world slips further from her grasp. Is it merely nostalgia she’s battling, or something far more menacing? Who haunts the house on Linden Way, and where are they hiding her child? 

Categories: horror, gothic suspense, haunted house, ghost story, magical realism, thriller

Purchase your own copy on:  Amazon

About the Author

Elizabeth Maria Naranjo is the award-winning author of The Fourth Wall (WiDo Publishing, 2014). Her short fiction and creative nonfiction have been published in Brevity MagazineSuperstition Review, Fractured Lit, The Portland Review, Hunger Mountain, Hospital Drive, Reservoir Road, Literary Mama, Motherwell, and a few other places. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize,Best American Essay, and Best of the Net. All links to Elizabeth’s work can be found on her website at

Find the post launching the tour over at the Muffin.