Colonel Shifty’s Handy Dandy Dictionary of Publishing Terms for the Lucky People Who Care for Writers

Hi, Colonel Shifty here. It recently came to my attention that while writers have a lot of support on the webternetz, the lucky souls who love and support writers are often left in the dark. What exactly does it mean to have an agent? What does the query process look like? Isn’t it easy to be a published writer, once you finally write the damn book? [Editor: Col. Shifty, let’s keep it clean. My mom reads this blog.]

Thanks to this handy dandy dictionary, when the special writer in your life is angsting over Goodreads reviews, or a revise and resubmit request, you won’t have to waste time asking what the H-E-double-hockey-sticks she’s talking about. Instead, you can get thee to the grocery store to retrieve chocolate, which is what your writer really needs.

So let’s jump right in, shall we?

Advance: Money a publisher offers an author up-front for her book. Advances vary, and I won’t even speculate on numbers here. It bears saying, though, that the writer you care for is, in her free time, daydreaming about her gigantic advance that will allow her to buy a lifetime’s supply of chocolate. And possibly hire a house keeper, and definitely a cook.

gopher money big

The Advance

Agent: An individual who agrees to submit a writer’s book to publishers. Agents typically take fifteen percent of what the publisher pays to the author. Some agents are editorial agents, which means they work with authors to polish manuscripts before submission. Some agents specialize in particular genres. If the special writer in your life is “querying” (see below), it usually means he is trying to find an agent.

Angst: A nearly constant state of being for any writer you may know and love or even encounter on the street. Even a writer deeply in love with her book and/or writing process will be filled with Angst because it is part of the definition of writer (see below).

Beta reader: A person – not necessarily a writer – who reads your writer’s work in its entirety. This can happen at any stage of the WIP (see below) but often happens toward the final revisions.

Critique group: A group of writers who share work and provide feedback to one another. If your writer has found a strong critique group which encourages him yet is not afraid to tell the truth when his writing needs work, count yourself lucky. You won’t be listening to your writer kvetch. Instead, your writer will probably be hitting you up for free babysitting while he goes to a critique group meeting. Better than listening to complaining, though, right? Critique groups can also work together over the webternetz. For a post related to writerly angst and critique, see Beth’s post here.

Editor: 1. An individual who works with your author on editing her book. 2. A freelance editor is someone your author might pay for help on her book, and 3. an editor at a publishing house will work with your author on her book as part of the publishing process.

Indie: Independent. Can refer to 1. small presses (publishers with smaller print runs) or 2. authors who have gone “indie,” that is, are self-publishing their books via CreateSpace, Smashwords, or through other methods.

Goodreads: a website chock full of reader reviews. The authors of reviewed books cannot seem to refrain from reading their reviews, often leading to Angst (see above). I, Colonel Shifty, have perused reviews and found some gems…and some that made me wince because of their harshness. If your writer is about to read reviews of his book on Goodreads, employ diversionary tactics forthwith. Cut the power lines if you must, or disable your wireless service. (DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, SABOTAGE YOUR WRITER’S COMPUTER.)

MG: Middle grade. Fiction geared toward the age group comprised of eight- to twelve-year-olds.

On Submission: When your writer’s book is “on submission,” it is being considered by editors at publishing houses.¬† To writers who have already published a book, the first time their book was “on submission” is remembered with fondness. To writers who have not yet published a book, being “on submission” is likened to sitting in the waiting room at the gynecologist’s office – everyone in there’s a little stir-crazy, hoping the time spent in that waiting room will be short, yet a little terrified about moving on. This is just what I hear. Remember, I am Colonel Shifty, and I don’t write books. (For an author’s take on being on submission, see the first post in an ongoing series by Natalia Sylvester, whose first book will be published in Spring 2014.)

PB: Picture book(s). Stories with pictures. Geared toward everyone, really, but primarily young children.

Pitch: The part of your writer’s query (see below) that tries to make his book sound as tantalizing as possible. There is also the “elevator pitch” or “log line,” which is the pitch in reduced form, generally about a sentence or two long.

Query: A one-page letter addressed to an agent or editor, presenting your author’s pitch and her writing credentials in the hopes of suckering encouraging said agent or editor to read her manuscript.

roller coaster

Query (verb)

Rejection: As in this handy dandy dictionary, a rejection is what usually follows a query letter. Rejection is part of writing for publication, and if you truly love your writer, you will buy him presents of chocolate, fizzy alcoholic beverages, and Thai food to soothe his Angst-filled soul.

Revise & Resubmit: Sometimes an agent or editor will request that your writer fix up her manuscript and send it back again. This is usually a good sign, indicating that the agent/editor wishes to work with your writer. Be prepared to witness alternating bouts of hysteria and paranoia and euphoria in your special writer. Feel free to leave the house/city/country for a few days. Your writer will be just fine on her own.

Royalties: The author’s percentage of the profits earned from books sold.

Synopsis: A document that strikes fear into the hearts of many a writer. It is highly unusual for writers to enjoy simplifying their plots to such a degree as to fit an entire novel into the space of two to three pages. Some writers do enjoy this process, but they are often secretive, not wishing to attract the ire of fellow writers. When synopses are spoken of in writerly settings, they are often given prefixes such as “sucky,” “crap,” and “dread,” as in, “my dread synopsis.”

WIP: Work-in-progress. A novel either in the drafting or revision stages.

le manuscript


Writer: An Angst-filled person who forms words into prose and/or verse. Personally, I distinguish “writer” from “author” in that a writer is someone who writes, whether or not that writer has published any work. An author is a person who has published a book. I make no distinctions between self-published and traditionally-published authors.

YA: Young adult. This is literature aimed at teenagers. It also is popular amongst that fascinating species, Stay-at-homus Mommaie.

I hope my Handy Dandy Dictionary of Publishing Terms for the Lucky People who Care for Writers has been handy, and dandy. If you have any questions or comments, ask ’em below.

Pitch Tips

After judging entries in the fabulous Deana Barnhart‘s Gearing Up to Get an Agent Contest, I came away with some strong ideas on what I think makes a successful pitch. This is not a comprehensive list, just a few things I thought about as I was reading/judging.

Voice: While writing the pitch from your character’s point of view is considered a no-no, I enjoyed the pitches that gave me a sense of the character’s voice. Think word choice and careful descriptive details. Too much voice in the pitch can sound gimmicky and annoying, so write with care.

Stakes: I loved the pitches that included not only the character’s goal, but what might happen if he failed. It didn’t have to be specific, but if it was, all the better. Here’s an example from my own pitch: “…Amalia has one month to restore the powerful twin magic fueled only by their connection. If she fails they will not only lose their powers, but their freedom, and ultimately, their lives.”

Character: The pitches that really stood out gave a strong sense of the character. What is the character like, and how might she change, given the high stakes she faces?

Length: Remember it’s a pitch, not a synopsis. I heard people bandying about the “rule” that a pitch should only cover the first fifty pages. It might be a good guideline, to cover the set up through that first doorway. It often seemed like pitches that tried to cover too much more of the story grew cumbersome and confusing because subplots started getting in the way.

Some things that concerned me: Typos, grammar/spelling errors, and sentence fragments. A pitch, whether it’s going straight to an agent or making stops on blog contests, should be proofread multiple times, preferably by more than one person. While we all fall victim to typos, and I doubt one in a query would kill chances with an agent, I don’t know…I think we should try really really hard to get our pitches as perfect as possible.

Or: You could, you know, skip the querying altogether and enter Miss Snark’s First Victim’s 2012 Baker’s Dozen Agent Auction. Authoress just listed the agent line up here! I participated last year. It was a blast, although, yes, there was all kinds of anxiety and nervousness. But I met some great writer friends and got excellent feedback on my log line and first 250 words.

The Query-Go-Round

The only thing keeping me strong with revisions is the thought that I might someday be done with them. I love revising, I do (where else in life can you hit the DELETE button on your mistakes before anyone else can see what a moron you are?). But sometimes revising seems endless, especially when you are anal retentive neurotic obsessive a teeny bit of a perfectionist like me.

So I have this list:

There's more, of course, but I don't want to give my brilliance away for free.

The list is three pages long, and I’ve checked off many of the (super quick) tasks over the past two and a half weeks. As soon as everything is crossed off, I will give the manuscript to some poor, unsuspecting super-lucky friends. While they read it and give me frequent updates on how awesome it is, I will be readying myself and my (super-brilliant) manuscript for the Query-Go-Round…the most uncomfortable part of wanting to be published. (Once a writer has published something, there is probably a whole new batch of horrors, but I don’t know anything about those yet. Thankfully?)

This will be my third trip on the Query-Go-Round, and I think I’ve learned a few things from my first two trips.*

First Lesson: A list of agents and a query letter are not enough.

Yeah, there are a few agents out there who don’t want anything except your pitch and maybe a few sample pages. But there are so many others, and some of them look fabulous, who ask for a synopsis. I limited my options with manuscripts 1 & 2 because I didn’t write synopses (yes, the plural form of synopsis is synopses). So this time I’m going all out: a one-page synopsis, a two-page synopsis, and a “detailed” synopsis, which, according to various sources, could be anywhere from twelve to 50 pages long. I’m going to shoot for ten.

Second Lesson: The synopsis is only painful if you don’t show it who’s boss.

Seriously. Once I stopped referring to it as the Dread Synopsis, things got a little easier. Then easier still when K in my critique group brought in a book jacket blurb. I don’t remember the book at all, but the jacket cover told quite a bit of the story, and it sounded actually interesting (unlike every previous synopsis I had attempted). The trick, we decided, is to infuse the thing with melodrama. My reasoning here is that a) I’m really great at melodrama, just ask any friends from high school, and b) you can always back off on the melodrama once it’s in there. But if you start with a dry recount of your story, nothing will give it life.

Third Lesson: Do your research.

It’s so much easier to query an agent when you know that he or she is a) actually looking for new clients and b) represents manuscripts similar to yours that you actually admire. Nothing is more awkward to me than telling an agent she should look at my manuscript because…because… I always look at the Acknowledgements page of books I love, because their agent (usually acknowledged) loved the same book, meaning we have similar taste, and naturally, she will love my book too. (Maybe not my first or second books, but definitely my third book.)

Fourth (And Last) Lesson: Don’t freaking give up after ten rejections.

I don’t know if I gave up too soon or not. It felt right to give up on manuscripts 1 & 2, because they didn’t feel like the Best Thing Ever. Why would I want to try to sell something that wasn’t my best? At the same time, maybe it was too early for the second manuscript. I could have revised for character, but werewolves seemed already overdone…I mean, I didn’t even want to read about them anymore, & I used to think they were the coolest.

With this manuscript, though, I plan to query agents in groups of five, then take what information I get back (assuming nobody offers to represent me on the spot, which, given my winsome charm and manuscript of awesomeness, is quite possible)…what was I saying? I’ll take whatever feedback I may get, and mull it over, consider revising, and revise or move on to the next wave of agents. Possibly. It’s an evolving process, and I’m learning from it all the time.


*Because I am not yet a Published Author, I don’t feel qualified to give writing advice. However, I’m really good at getting manuscripts rejected by literary agents, so I think I can talk a little about that.