Why is it so Hard to Get Published?


This is a question that a lot of writers ask. Maybe they’ve been submitting their book for a long time and haven’t gotten any interest, or maybe they got some interest but their book still wasn’t picked up by an agent or editor. Most of us know that getting published is extraordinarily difficult, but why is it so hard? Let’s look at some of the reasons and what you can do about it.

Your Book is a Little Fish (and the pond is really big!)

Publishing is like a national (and sometimes international) competition. Agents and editors are looking for the best of the best, the cream of the crop. Not only are they looking to weed out the writers who are terrible, but they’re also weeding out those who are just okay, those who are pretty good, and even those who are great. They are looking only for the writers who are fantastic.

Publishing is like the writing Olympics. You have to train to get there, and even once you make it, you still have to beat out tons of extraordinarily talented people to get to the top. So your book is a little fish in a great big pond. Sometimes even exceptional work doesn’t stand out.

Solution: Figure out what makes your writing extraordinary and put that in the first few pages of your novel. Maybe it’s your character’s unique voice. Maybe it’s an unusually short, choppy style. Or maybe it’s a really cool idea that hasn’t been explored before. Whatever it is that makes your writing stand out, make sure the agent or editor will see it (or at least an intriguing hint of it) in the sample pages, and make sure it’s in your query letter too.

Publishing is Subjective (it’s all about opinions!)

While there are obviously standards that most readers expect a book to adhere to, writing as a whole is not very objective. Chances are, if you read through some of my First Page Friday posts, you won’t agree with all of my critiques, because we all have our own opinion about what makes a book great.

When you send your book to that agent or editor you love, they have to form a decision as quickly as they can so that they can move on to the next query letter (or partial or full manuscript). So not only are you at the mercy of their opinion, but you’re at the mercy of decisions that are often made in seconds.

Solution: Know that you can’t please everyone. Don’t pin all your hopes and dreams on one or two agents who you know are perfect for you. Query widely to everyone who might have an interest in your book and don’t let rejections get you down. Shake them off and move on, even if they come from someone whose opinion you really respect. They may have just rejected you because your book is too similar to something they already represent or because they were having a bad day when they read your query. Don’t try to analyze a rejection unless there’s feedback attached.

Publishing is About Marketability (sales, sales, sales!)

This is the part of the picture that a lot of writers don’t understand. Agents and editors want books that will sell, even if they aren’t as well written as another book in the slush pile. Publishers have to be able to place your book on the shelves, meaning that it has to fit in an established genre. It also has to have an audience that the publisher has the ability to reach, which can be different for different publishers.

This is why a crappy movie/TV tie-in book or one that focuses on a current area of public interest can rocket to the top of the bestseller list even if the writing is mediocre. It’s why a famous author can write a book that’s just okay and still make a killing. Meanwhile, your beautiful steampunk space opera horror story sits on your computer’s hard drive because publishers couldn’t figure out where to place it in the bookstores.

Solution: Know your genre and demographic. Figure out who you’re writing for so you can convey that to agents and editors, and make sure that your writing meets the expectations of readers in your genre. This does not mean you can’t be innovative and blend genres, but you should be able to identify the books that would compete against yours. Some agents and editors like this to be typed right into the query letter (for example: My book will appeal to fans of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series).

Want to learn how to write killer first pages and query letters? Check out my critique workshops.


Trick or Treat with a Pro Novel Editor – Win Free Editing!

***This Contest is over. Sorry! Still interested in free editing? Click here or follow my blog to get email updates about future contests.***

***Contest results are here.***

It’s almost Halloween! As grown-ups, we’re too old to get free candy (sad and unfair), but we’re not too old for grown-up prizes!

If you come trick or treating to my door (AKA the comment section) between now and midnight on October 31st, you will be in the running for some awesome prizes!


The Prizes

GRAND PRIZE: Free edit of your novel’s first 25,000 words.

SECOND PLACE: Free edit of your novel’s first 10,000 words.

THIRD PLACE: Free edit of your novel’s first 5,000 words.

PARTICIPANTS: Free critique of your query letter as a reply in the comment section.

How to Enter for Second and Third Place

Since this has gotten hundreds of views and only one entry (what???), I figure you guys must not have your query letters ready. So…for second and third place only, all you have to do is Tweet about the giveaway to enter (make sure you include my handle: @keytopservices so I can count your submission).

I will randomly choose the winner. You can Tweet up to 3 times per day.

How to Enter For the Grand Prize

Leave a comment with your query letter or a short pitch (if you’re self-publishing, you can use your back cover blurb). I will be judging the entries based on who impresses me the most. Consider this a practice run for your query.

*If you do NOT want your query to be public, you may email it to me: ellenbrock@keytopservices.com

The free query letter critique will be performed as a reply to your query in the comments section. The critique only applies to true query letters and back cover blurbs (not alternative/informal pitches).

You may delete your query letter after the contest ends if you choose to.

The winning entries will be announced on Friday along with an explanation as to why I found their query letters the most intriguing.

Prize Redemption

The Grand Prize, Second Place, and Third Place prizes must all be redeemed within one year of my announcing the winners or the prizes expire.

Due to already scheduled work, January will be the earliest the free edits can be performed. I advise scheduling your free edits as early as possible.

If there is a high number of entries, it may take me a week or more to provide all the query letter critiques.

Please Spread the Word!

Share this contest on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and beyond! I really appreciate it!


How to Dump Info Without Info Dumping

As much as we all know to never ever use info dumps, it doesn’t always make sense to convey something through dialogue or a flashback, and sometimes you need the reader to know the information right away – you don’t have time to trickle it through several chapters.

So for those times when you truly need to do some telling instead of showing, here are some tricks to slip it in unnoticed.


Establish a Scene

Before moving into an info dump, always establish a scene. This means that the very first information conveyed needs to establish the basics: who, what, when, and where. Let the reader know what your character is up to and they will have something to visualize. Visualizing something (anything!), helps the reader stay engrossed in the scene.

The Scene has to Matter

The scene you establish must be in some way integral to telling the story. The scene’s purpose cannot be simply to dump information on the reader. Something interesting must happen in the moment of the scene, not only in the info dump. For more about this, check out: How to Spot a Bad Scene or Chapter.

Stick to the Facts

Does the reader really need to know that Hank was late to Jane’s wedding, the Halloween party, and Christmas Eve? Or do they just need to know that Hank is always late? If it’s the fact that the reader needs (Hank is always late), and not the story (Hank was late to Jane’s wedding, etc.), then stick to the one sentence fact, don’t tell a two paragraph story.

Keep it Short

Think critically about what the reader really needs to know to understand the story. Every time you want to tell something, ask yourself: If I didn’t tell this, would it reduce the reader’s comprehension of the story? If the answer is no, leave it out. Don’t slip into the trap of believing that more information always enhances the story. If the characters, plot, and world make sense without the information, the readers don’t need it.

Couch it in Action

Couching an info dump in action allows the scene to maintain momentum rather than grinding to a screeching halt. A lack of momentum is what makes info dumps so glaringly annoying in the first place. So instead of Jane sitting at the window contemplating how Hank is always late, she can think about it while pacing around her apartment. The key word is “while.” She needs to think about it while pacing, not before or after.

Let’s look at a scene that does not follow these rules:

Hank was never there when Jane needed him. She would sit and wait for hours and he’d never show up. He was late to her wedding even though she sent a cab to his door at the right time to pick him up. He was late to the Halloween party when they were dressing up together as M&Ms. They worked for hours on those costumes and almost missed the party. And then there was Christmas Eve. Hank was Jane’s secret Santa and he was so late that she had to open her gift after the party had already ended. And he never even cared. He just shrugged it off like it was no big deal. But Jane cared. She cared a lot.

Jane laid down and went to bed. Maybe someday Hank would change and be the man that she needed.

Why it Doesn’t Work

Let’s break down why the above scene doesn’t work by examining each of the rules.

Establish a Scene: Where is Jane? What is she doing? Why is she thinking about Hank always being late? We don’t know any of that until after the huge paragraph of info dump.

The Scene has to Matter: Is this scene really necessary to the book? Nothing happens except Jane pouting about Hank’s lateness and then she goes to bed. With no conflict or relevance to the rest of the novel, this scene is clearly not needed.

Stick to the Facts: Do we really need to know that they were going to dress up as M&Ms? Or that she sent a cab to his house on her wedding day? My guess is no. What we really need to know is that Hank is always late.

Keep it Short: Is everything in this paragraph necessary to grasp the concept that Hank is often late? Clearly not. And remember, we don’t want to fall into the trap of believing that all details “enhance” the story. They very often do not.

Couch it in Action: There’s no action in this scene until the last sentence, so obviously no couching is happening here.

So how can we rewrite this scene?

Jane paced back and forth in front of her apartment door. Hank was late. She wrung the end of her shirt in her hands. He was always late. She took a deep breath and paced harder. Maybe he didn’t want their relationship to work out as much as she did.

There was a knock at the door. She yanked it open and Hank stood there, a bright smile on his face. Two hours late. She sighed.

Why is this better?

Let’s break it down:

Establish a Scene: This is done right away. We know where Jane is and what she’s doing.

The Scene has to Matter: Hank is on his way over so presumably something is going to develop with the plot.

Stick to the Facts: Rather than long stories, there were brief sentences about Hank’s lateness.

Keep it Simple: The facts weren’t embellished with a bunch of extras. It was simple and quick.

Couch it in Action: Jane is active, before, during, and after the information is conveyed, so the reader is never yanked from the scene.

And here’s the kicker: Writing a scene like this is usually easier, faster, and actually conveys more emotional information than an ordinary info dump. If you use these techniques, your writing will improve, guaranteed!

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Bestselling Middle Grade Fiction Part 1: Genres & Topics

This is part one in my middle grade fiction series. Future installments will include information and statistics on word count, point of view, tense, and debut vs. established authors.

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I compiled the statistics below based on the New York Times Bestsellers List for middle grade novels. I included all novels that made the top ten list between April and September 2013 (a six month period).

I did not include media tie-ins (Lego, Disney, Star Wars, etc.) as these books have their own momentum that may have nothing to do with the subject matter, the quality of the book, etc.

I did not include nonfiction.

I did not include books that were sequels because they are not standing alone on their own merit.

I did include books that are the first in a series even if a subsequent book had already been published before the first book made it on the bestsellers list.

Purpose of Research

While there are a lot of factors that go into a book’s success, I wanted to break down the elements of the most popular middle grade books in the current market.

My primary motivation in doing this is to answer some of the most frequently asked questions by aspiring middle grade authors, such as appropriate topics, genres, word counts, point of view, tense, etc.

Bestselling Middle Grade Genres & Topics

Realistic vs. Fantastical

Rather than split hairs about individual genres, I decided to breakdown the bestselling books based on whether or not they are realistic or fantastical.

I am defining realistic as anything that could possibly happen in real life and fantastical as anything that cannot happen in real life. Talking animals are included under fantastical.

Of the 22 books on the list, 10 were realistic and 12 were fantastical.

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Realistic Fiction Topics

In realistic fiction, the most popular topic/genre was Historical. Keep in mind that teachers are one of the biggest purchases of middle grade books and are more likely to buy the educational historical novels over a humor or mystery novel.

Humor and Mystery were the primary topics/themes of two books each. There were also two books with a disabled main character. I included “disabled main character” as a topic when it was the driving force behind the novel rather than incidental.

Only one sports book made the list. It may be important to note that this book was written by a professional soccer player, which may or may not have driven sales.

Screen Shot 2013-09-30 at 9.59.48 AM

Fantastical Fiction Topics

In fantastical fiction, the most popular genre/topic was books set in a fantasy world. I defined “Fantasy World” as a book that takes place entirely in a fantasy world and in which the real world does not exist at all. There were five of these on the bestsellers list, making it by far the most popular form of fantastical fiction.

“Portal Fantasy” is a novel that starts in the real world and features a child who is transported into a fantasy world. There were two of these.

I defined “personified animals” as animals that are the main character or who narrate the story. Aside from the personified animals, there were no fantastical elements in these story. The setting and plot would have been realistic had the main character been a human. There were two of these.

There was only one Dystopian novel and it featured dogs as the main characters (this was not included under “personified animals” due to other fantasy elements). Since the only bestselling Dystopian featured dogs, it is not clear whether Dystopian with humans would be successful in middle grade.

One book featured fantasy elements in the real world, meaning that the characters were not transported to another world but simply found magic here on earth.

One book was Paranormal, but the author was extremely well established before its publication, making it difficult to say whether paranormal would be a successful genre for a debut author.

Screen Shot 2013-09-30 at 10.16.12 AM


Animals made quite a few appearances in middle grade books. Three books featured animals as a significant element of the plot, and two featured animals as the main characters, for a total of five books featuring animals in a significant role.

Screen Shot 2013-09-30 at 10.35.04 AM

Absent Genres

In addition to exploring the popular genres, it’s important to note the genres that made no appearance at all. There was not a single Science Fiction novel on the list. There also wasn’t any Horror, though some of the fantasy books had some minor horror elements.

In realistic fiction, there weren’t any stories about normal kids facing major life issues (bullying, divorce, etc.). There were two humor books that dealt with popularity, but the only realistic fiction with a serious tone were the two books about disabled main characters.

There are two ways to look at these absent genres/topics. They could either be areas of opportunity or areas with poor sales. It’s difficult to determine without further research, but I tend to believe that there is always a place for a well-written novel of any genre.

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Improve Your Novel with Find and Replace


Once you’ve perfected your plot and polished up your prose, there’s a quick way to add an extra layer of shine to your novel: Find and Replace.

The “Find and Replace” feature (sometimes called “Search and Replace”) is an easy way to get rid of bad writing habits that you might not notice when reading straight through your novel.

Here are some things to search for and eliminate from your book:

Began & Started

Find: Begin, begins, began, beginning, start, starts, started, starting

Replace these words with active verbs. We don’t need to know that the character started doing something, we just need to know that they’re doing it. “Start” and “began” make the action feel less active so consequently, the reader is less engaged.

Example: He started to run.

Change to: He ran.


Find: ly (this can be a bit tedious, but if you have a love affair with adverbs it will be well worth the time.)

Replace words ending in “ly” (AKA adverbs) with stronger verbs or cut them out entirely. Adverbs weaken the action rather than strengthen it, and they are often a sign of lazy writing.

Example: He quickly ran across the park.

Change to: He darted across the park.

Verbs Ending in “ing”

Find: ing (again, this can be pretty tedious, but it’s worth it.)

Replace verbs ending in “ing” with verbs ending in “ed” whenever it is proceeded by “was,” “were,” or “is.” This sort of “ing” verb makes the action less active and if you use it a lot, it can also raise your word count.

Sometimes, however, this sentence structure makes sense if an ongoing action is being described, but think critically about whether it makes a difference if the action was ongoing or immediate. If it doesn’t matter, go with “ed,” as in the example below.

Example: I turned and Mary was glaring at me.

Change to: I turned and Mary glared.

Time-Based Adverbs

Find: when, then, suddenly, immediately, always, often, already, finally

Replace these time-based adverbs with stronger descriptions that show the suddenness, frequency, etc., or eliminate them entirely. I wrote a post about time-based adverbs here. But here’s the gist: more words take longer to read and make the action feel less immediate, not more immediate.

Example: I immediately ran through the door.

Change to: I ran through the door.

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First Draft Problems and How to Solve Them


All first drafts have problems.  But all first drafts can also be polished into gems with a little (or a lot) of rewriting. Here are some of the most common first draft problems and how you can solve them.

Info Dumps Through Dialog

This is when a huge amount of the plot or back story is conveyed through dialog.  Rather than showing the reader the conflict and allowing them to gradually learn about the history of your character and universe, you simply stuff everything necessary into a verbal info dump.

“I don’t understand,” Maggie said.

“Let me explain it to you,” the wizard said. “It all started twenty years ago when your great, great grandfather wanted to rule the kingdom…[100 words later]…the king didn’t want that to happen so he sent away the man servant and told him to never return, but he secretly…[250 words later]…and then you were born and raised by mountain trolls…[200 words later]… so now you must regain the glory of our kingdom by fighting the dragon of the north.”

Solution: Find ways to trickle this information throughout the book.  Think critically about what your reader needs to know in any given moment. So long as they get the information before it becomes relevant, you’re good, so space it out.  Also, think critically about whether the information is needed at all. Condense the story down to its bare essentials.

Info Dumps of the Past

This happens when the novel is packed with things that happened before the start of the story. You may be constantly backtracking to explain things. It gives the reader a sort of whiplash as they are ping-ponged from the current events to the past and back again.

Angela looked at me in that crappy way of hers, eyes bugging out of her head.  I hate that girl.  Last summer when I went out with Max, but he was still in love with Abby, who really wanted to be with Kristy, but she was totally hung up on Brad…[200 words later] and then she totally didn’t even show up to my birthday party and she had the nerve to ask me to…[450 words later] …so that’s why I don’t like Angela.

Solution: Follow the advice for info dumps through dialog and also consider the possibility that you are starting your story too late.  Sometimes info dumps about the past can be eliminated by adding a well-structured first chapter that shows the reader what they will need to know to understand the rest of the story. For more help: How to Dump Info Without Info Dumping.


Over Explaining

In large part, this has to do with not trusting your reader to “get it” without your (extensive) help. The result is that the same thing is explained over and over and over again. This is often the cause of super long word counts.

He was sad. His eyes welled with tears. His head dropped to his chest. “It’s so tragic!” he cried, wiping away tears. His heart felt as if it were breaking.

Solution: Trust your reader! And keep it simple! If you explain something once, the vast majority of your readers will understand and remember it.

Under Explaining

This happens when you’re too close to your own story. Everything feels so obvious and clear to you (as the author) and as a result you are leaving readers scratching their heads wondering what the heck is going on.

Charles opened the fridge and inside there was a GooblyOobly. It pulled out its wattyboo and cast a Famblaster spell that cracked Charles’ hobmufster in two.

Solution: Step away from your work! Get some distance (a few days to a few weeks), then come back to it with fresh eyes. Try to read it like you’ve never seen it before. If this doesn’t work, have someone else read it for you and mark where they get confused or feel lost.

Chapters with the Same Purpose

Each chapter or section should serve a unique and necessary purpose in your novel. In a lot of first drafts, there will be multiple chapters that share a function.

Perhaps you want to show that Lexi is scared of water, so you write a scene where she has to take a sponge bath instead of bathe in the tub.  Then you write a scene where everyone else is going swimming and she can’t go.  Then you write a scene where she has a panic attack when a glass of water is spilled on her.  Okay, we get it!  She’s afraid of water!

Solution: There is nothing wrong with including all of these scenes in your book so long as there is another purpose to each of the scenes.  You can only have one scene with the exclusive purpose of demonstrating her fear.  After that, there must be a different conflict, a different purpose, or else the scene should be scrapped. For more help: How to Spot a Bad Scene or Chapter.

Chapters with No Purpose

This is the dreaded filler!  If your characters are eating, smoking, staring out a window, or thinking of the past, you have most likely written a chapter or section with no purpose.  Each chapter/section must have a conflict and a resolution.  If there is neither, it’s just filler.

I have found that NaNoWriMo novels in particular have a lot of filler because writers are racing to meet the word count.  Filler can also happen when a writer isn’t sure where they want to go with the book so they ramble for a few chapters before getting back on course.

Solution: If a scene has no conflict or resolution, cut it out.  Don’t whine and moan and cry about it.  Just cut it out and move on.  You’ll never miss filler scenes when you get down to the finished product.

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Make Sure the Dialog in Your Novel Makes Sense!

LandscapeWriters often create conversations between their characters that don’t make sense.  Usually this is because dialog tags and narration create so much space between what one character says and what another character responds with that it’s easy to forget what the conversation was about in the first place. This most often happens with questions.  For example:

“When do you want to eat?” Oscar asked, running his hands through his hair. He seemed distracted, probably wondering if I still wanted to eat at our usual restaurant after everything that had happened.

“Let’s eat at the burger joint,” I said.

At first read through, you may not notice that her response doesn’t answer Oscar’s question.  Sure she might have some motivation for not answering it, but in this conversation, that doesn’t seem to be the case.  And if that is the case, it’s the author’s responsibility to make that clear.

I see an issue like this one in just about every single novel I edit.  You can solve this problem easily by reading through your dialog without tags or narration. Read it like a normal, natural conversation (this is also useful for creating good flow).

“When do you want to eat?”

“Let’s eat at the burger joint.”

Now it’s easy to see that her response doesn’t make sense.

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Stop Using “-ing” Verbs in Your Novel

Want to add instantaneous strength to your novel?  Cut out verbs ending in “ing.”  These verbs weaken your writing and reduce the reader’s perception of immediacy. So avoiding these verbs can increase tension and improve flow.

6891657867_2b78f2abfeConsider the following sentences:

  • He was walking to the park.
  • I was dancing on stage.
  • She is staring at me.

Now check out these replacement sentences:

  • He walked to the park.
  • I danced on stage.
  • She stares at me.

See how much more direct and powerful these sentences are?  And of course,  this has a cumulative effect.  The more “-ing” verbs you cut out, the stronger your writing will seem. Consider this paragraph:

Abigail was walking along the bike trail. There was a boy riding his bike. He was smiling up at her as she passed. She started wondering what the boy was so happy about.

Now consider the alternative:

Abigail walked along the bike trail. A boy rode his bike and smiled as he passed her. She wondered what the boy was so happy about.

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