Excerpt: The Stars of Heaven

The paperback of The Stars of Heaven has finally made past production delays (thanks, 2020…) and is available for purchase! To celebrate, today’s blog is an excerpt from Chapter One. I hope you enjoy!

Glancing at the parishioners spilling out the door of Nossa Senhora dos Mártires into the square in front of the basilica, Cecília was left with the sinking feeling that it was getting far closer to ten than she’d originally estimated. Even if she had convinced Tio Aloisio to come to the Baixa with her, they would have had no chance to make it to São Vincente in time for High Mass. All she could hope was that no one had noticed she’d gone, and the entire morning would be one more thing she would have to privately confess at the Palmeiro’s. 

She slowed them to a stop just outside the square by another niche—one holding a thick wooden crucifix—and pointed east. “Rua Nova dos Mercadores is that way, if you’d like to part ways here.” 

“I’m more than happy to walk you the rest of the way home, Senhorita Durante.”

Because after everything, she needed someone from her bairro seeing her wandering about alone with an Englishman. “With the crowds, I imagine that would make you late for your meeting.” 

A conflicted expression moved over Mr. Bates’s face as he scanned the crowd for himself, no doubt seeing she was right. 

She saved him the trouble of having to weigh whatever duty he felt to her and however important he considered his meeting. “I’ve lived in Lisbon my entire life, Mr. Bates. I’m certain I’ll be able to make it home without your assistance.” 

Mr. Bates began to give one more halfhearted objection before a low rumble moving through the ground made him trail off. Cecília frowned, looking for an approaching coach, though from the way the sound was growing, it would have had to have been a line of coaches barreling toward them. 

“What’s that?” Mr. Bates followed Cecília’s gaze. 

Cecília shook her head, not having any better idea than Mr. Bates. The rumbling grew stronger, making loose pebbles rattle around her feet as the sound neared a roar. 

Earthquake. The thought registered a second too late as the street under her rolled. Cecília tipped forward as shouts went up, mixing with discordant clanging church bells. She put her hand out to brace herself, but the ground lurched again. Her shoulder slammed into the curve of the niche then bucked the other way. She hit cobblestone hard. 

The wall of the building across from her split, chunks of white plaster raining down across the street. Rough brick showed through as the ground continued its assault. Then the brick started to tilt. Eyes widening, Cecília curled into herself, everything happening too quickly to make sense. The wall fell. Hard chunks pelted her as it kicked up a cloud of dust so thick that she had no choice but to close her eyes. 

Slowly, the shaking slowed, and the roar was replaced by a cacophony of the most horrible sounds Cecília had ever heard—screaming, crying, panicked whinnies of horses. Cecília’s body seized. She tried to unfurl, but her muscles wouldn’t release. Shock kept her curled, eyes squeezed shut as though everything would stop if she didn’t look, as though she would wake up in her bed, the morning a dream. A new roar rose over the screams a second before the rumbling returned. Crying, she dropped her forehead to the ground, mumbling some prayer for mercy as Hell rose up around her. “Misericorda. Misericorda de Deus.” 

There was more screaming, more crashing, a loud snap, and pain shooting across her back. Somewhere, her mind registered that something hard had landed on top of her. She choked on dust as she gasped, trying to suck in what air she could under the crushing weight. Time began to blur. Nothing existed beyond the roar and rocking and pain. 

The ground slowly stilled once again—after how long, Cecília couldn’t begin to imagine—but she still couldn’t breathe. She struggled to reach whatever had pinned her. One hand touched smooth wood—the crucifix from the niche. She pushed, but it wouldn’t shift. Something had to have been on top of it, pressing into the cross as it pressed into her. Her sight began to blur, her chest not able to expand enough to take in air. As hard as she fought to remain conscious, her mind turned fuzzy. 

The third roar barely registered until the crucifix shook loose. Cecília gasped. She ended up coughing, thick dust coating her throat. No longer completely pinned, she still had to fight to free herself. Rough bricks scraped her palms, but they shifted as the shaking stopped, letting Cecília inch her way forward. She could find her way out, if she just kept moving… 

Reaching out once more, her hand hit nothing. She froze, the sensation not making sense until she realized she had reached open air. The day had simply turned pitch black.

 And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand toward Heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt. The words floated through Cecília’s mind, and she crossed herself before she realized how much pain the movement caused. She couldn’t bring herself to rise from her knees. God had thrown her and the whole city down into the earth. There was no other explanation.

 Slowly, some light began to filter through the haze in the air, and Cecília’s eyes struggled to adjust. The sight was worse than the darkness. Bodies poked through piles of stone—men with their heads dashed open, mangled limbs reaching out as if trying to free themselves even without the bodies to which they had once been attached. Others were still alive, and some cried for help, some already fleeing over the rubble. They weren’t in Hell. But Lisbon seemed worse.

Buy The Stars of Heaven today in ebook or paperback:

Barnes & Noble

7 Things You Never Learned (about the Great Lisbon Earthquake)

After six years of work researching, writing, and editing, my first purely historical fiction novel, The Stars of Heaven, has finally reached release day! One thing that had long kept me in the “historical fantasy” sphere (beyond the fact that magic is fun!) was I was always a bit intimidated by the amount of research that goes into true historical fiction novels. And The Stars of Heaven was its own level of research hell since, like the bulk of Americans I’ve met, I had never even heard of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake before learning of its existence in a rather unlikely source–an Assassin’s Creed game. After falling down a research hole trying to find out what this disaster was, I found what might be one of the most important events of the Western world that no one outside of Portugal (who hasn’t read Voltaire’s Candide) seems to know about.

So, for those of you out there who, like me, had never heard of this disaster. Here are seven of the most interesting fact I learned while in that research quagmire:

1. It was more than “just” an earthquake.

While the earthquake was the primary disaster (with an epicenter likely somewhere off the Portuguese coast under the Atlantic and large enough to have reports of feeling it in New England papers–estimated to be an 8.4 on the modern Richter scale) Lisbon really couldn’t catch a break. Rather than a quick rumble passing through, there were three distinct waves of shaking, each reportedly lasting for several minutes. Contemporary accounts disagree on exact timing (I imagine you aren’t busy looking at your pocket watch in the middle of trying not to die) but it is generally agreed that the shaking alone lasted at least ten minutes. As the quake also happened on a holiday (All Saints’ Day) in very Catholic Portugal, it also managed to knock over a ton of votive candles and start fires all over the city. As Lisbon is built at the center of a number of tall hills, this created a fire bowl that ripped through what buildings weren’t destroyed.

Ancient map Lisbon

Since that obviously wasn’t enough though, as often happens with earthquakes under water, the quake then sparked off tsunamis–three of them, one for each wave of the quake–that hit the city and washed out most of the Lisbon waterfront (including the king’s Riverside Palace and Naval Shipyard). When all was said and done, there was practically nothing left of downtown Lisbon (known as the Baixa).

2. An estimated 50,000 died and 100,000 were left homeless.

With the success of Portugal’s overseas colonies (most notably Brazil) in the eighteenth century, Lisbon was a thriving trading port, housing an estimated 10% of Portugal’s total population (approx. 250,000 people). As it was a holiday, many from the surrounding countryside had come to the city to attend High Mass and other festivities, making the already crowded city packed. This led to an estimated 50,000 deaths over the course of the quakes, fires, and tsunamis, and another 100,000 people left homeless.

Period copper engraving showing the destruction of Lisbon

3. It was the first “modern” disaster with major international aid.

While the Great Lisbon Earthquake was far from the first major natural disaster, it was the first in a major European city after trade had interwoven the major powers so closely (as a port city, Lisbon had a sizable expat community, including traders from across the globe). News of the destruction shocked the world, and many countries immediately sent aid to help the struggling lisboetas (and evacuate any of their own citizens who wished to leave). As this was the eighteenth century, “immediately” often did mean several months between the news reaching somewhere and then ships making it back, but it still was perhaps the first example of the outpouring of international aid we still see following major disasters.

4. It included one of the first scientific seismic studies.

While many did believe the earthquake had been sent by God to punish, those interested in the “modern” methods brought by the European Age of Enlightenment wanted to find a scientific explanation for what happened. This included interviewing those willing to give first-person accounts and sending out surveys asking questions such as “When did you first feel the shaking” (trying to track how the quake moved) and “Did you notice any signs before the shaking started” (such as animals acting strangely or wells running low). It was hoped that being able to understand any patterns would allow them to predict future quakes, or at least “earthquake proof” new buildings.

Astrolabe, 18th century
“Astrolabe, 18th century” by austinevan

5. Soldiers marching was used to test earthquake-proof designs.

Paired with the survey, following the quake, architects worked for years to try to build structures that were “earthquake proof” including using different types of latticework to support stone buildings and have the masonry fall out to the street rather than on anyone in the building. To test the different models created (as they couldn’t call up another small quake or use a modern earthquake simulator) they came up with the ingenious solution of having soldiers march in circles around the models to make the ground shake. This allowed them to pick the strongest framing designs.

6. It (more or less) ended the Portuguese Inquisition.

Perhaps less well known than its Spanish cousin, there was also a Holy Office of the Inquisition in Portugal that ran well into the eighteenth century.

The Spanish Inquisition - Monty Python
No one expects the Spanish, er, I mean Portuguese Inquisition! http://people.csail.mit.edu/paulfitz/spanish/t3.html

While the quake did lead many to double down on their faith, it also put the Church in direct conflict with the scientific methods being used to study the quake (hey, look, that’s what my book’s about… fancy that…) While it was a slow process, the quake more or less was the beginning of the end of the Portuguese Inquisition. Other progressive legislation tied (either directly or indirectly) to the earthquake includes the founding of public schools in Portugal, “modernization” of college curricula (moving away from classic Latin studies), abolition of slavery in Portugal (though unfortunately not its colonies–sorry, Brazil), and opening positions once only allowed to be held by nobility to anyone qualified.

7. It permanently scarred the king (mentally).

While the reigning king, Dom José (Joseph I of Portugal), and his family escaped the quake physically intact (they were spending the holiday in Belém–now a part of Lisbon–which was located on stronger bedrock to the west and not as hard hit as the Baixa) mentally, the king never recovered. Suffering from what most likely would now be called PTSD, he refused to step foot inside masonry again for the rest of his life, going so far as to commission what came to be known as the Real Barraca (literally the “royal shack” or “royal tent”) a grand single-story palace built entirely of wood.


By all accounts, it was an impressive structure filled with tapestries and other luxuries to make it more “royal” than “shack” located on the site of modern-day Ajuda National Palace. Unfortunately, as wooden structures are wont to do, it caught fire and burned down in 1794.

Overall, it is a fascinating time that really deserves more attention than it’s currently given. For those interested in the actual history, I highly recommend This Gulf of Fire: the destruction of Lisbon or apocalypse in the age of science and reason by Mark Molesky (my primary source while writing) or The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin, and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 by Nicholas Shrady. And for those interested in a fictionalized account of the quake and years following it, pick up The Stars of Heaven, available at all major online retailers.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08CHNS816/

Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-stars-of-heaven-jessica-dall/1137445552

What Genre is My Novel?

On Sunday I announced our new Sunday blog series, “Genres (and why we write them)” where this blog will be hosting authors who write a range of genres and talk about what drew them to the genres they write, what challenges they find because of their categorization, and other general thoughts about genres and marketing.

Before we fully get into the blog series, however, it seemed like a good time to talk about what genres are out there (and what genre your own writing might fall into for all the other authors out there).

Most plainly (as defined by Merriam Webster) a genre is “a particular type or category of literature or art.” Going a little deeper, when it comes to publishing, genre is a way of labeling a certain group of novels along shared subject matter. This makes it easier for authors to explain their books, publishers to market them, and readers to find things they are interested in reading.

Though there are dozens of genres and subgenres that are used when discussing novels, some of the most common you’ll likely come across (whether you’re looking for a novel to read or need a category for your novel) are:

  • Contemporary Fiction: One of the broader categories to place your novel in, Contemporary Fiction tends to cover novels that take place in a contemporary/modern-day setting and doesn’t fall into another genre (e.g. Urban Fantasy or Women’s Fiction).
  • Historical Fiction: Unsurprisingly, Historical Fiction covers books that take place in historical settings. Famous historical figures may become characters (even the main character such as Mary Bolyen being the protagonist of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Bolyen Girl) but the story can also center around a “normal” character living in a historical period (for example A Picture of Freedom following the life of a fictional slave girl in 1859 without her meeting Jefferson Davis or Harriet Beecher Stowe). Note: Historical Fiction tends to be applied to modern authors writing in historical settings versus Period Pieces with an author from an earlier time period writing what was then contemporary fiction, such as Jane Austen’s works.
  • Fantasy: Fantasy is a wide-ranging genre with a number of subgenres, namely because it is the label that is given to any book that has some sort of fantastical/magical element to it–be that magic powers, mythical creature, or just about anything else that can’t exist (or be explained) in the real world. Some subgenres you may come across include:
    • High Fantasy/Sword and Sorcery: What many people think of when they first hear the term “fantasy novel,” High Fantasy is The Lord of the Rings style fantasy, that takes place in an entirely fantastical world with fantasy races (Elves, Orcs…) and often includes big battles with good vs. evil (or at least people you mostly like vs. people you don’t really like, if you are going the George R. R. Martin/A Game of Thrones way of High Fantasy). It is also sometimes referred to as Sword and Sorcery since often the settings are vaguely medieval with swords as the primary form of weaponry outside of magic.
    • Historical FantasyHistorical Fantasy tends to be a mix of Historical Fiction and Fantasy where fantastical things happen in a historical setting (think vampires in Victorian London or there truly being witches in the middle of the Salem Witch Trials, such as Heather Eager’s Devil’s Playground
    • Urban Fantasy:  Urban Fantasy, as the name suggests, is technically fantasy that
      takes place in a city. Lately, though, the term has been expanded to generally mean “fantasy that takes place in a contemporary setting” even if that setting is primarily a school in the Scottish Highlands (a la J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter) or a small Alaskan town (like Karissa Laurel’s Norse Chronicles).
    • Magical RealismSwinging the fantasy genre as close to Contemporary Fiction as possible, Magical Realism is a subgenre that uses magical elements in a way that seems perfectly normal in a realistic setting. For example, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of SolitudeThe visions, ghosts, and prophecies are technically fantastical elements, but the book is otherwise closer to Contemporary Fiction than something like High Fantasy.
  • Science Fiction: Like the Fantasy genre, Science Fiction deals with things that don’t exist in the real world (time travel, aliens) but unlike fantasy, the things that are happening could (at least logically) be explained by science rather than magic. For example, rather than having a magical amulet or witch’s curse that allows for time travel, a scientist has developed an equation that folds time enough to be able to step through it. Science Fiction is sometimes divided into Hard Science Fiction, which is focused on making the science behind their robots, cloning, etc. highly developed, truly seem realistic and Soft Science Fiction, which is a little less interested the actual scientific explanations for what is happening (sometimes even straying into Science Fantasy where there starts to be vaguely scientific Hand Wave’em to explain technology in the story such as, arguably, BBC’s Doctor Who).
    • Steampunk: A popular subgenre of Science Fiction, Steampunk takes place in a world where steam is the dominant power source driving inventions. Because of that, the worlds tend to be vaguely Victorian in nature rather than futuristic.
  • Romance: As the name would suggest, the Romance genre covers stories where falling in love tends to be the driving force of the plot. Overall, plots tend to follow the same basic formula: Hero meets heroine (or hero meets hero, heroine meets heroine, etc.), they have some sort of attraction to each other, something keeps them apart (one finding the other annoying, conflicting opinions, evil outside parties), but in the end they end up together. Since the story tends to be character-driven, unique, engaging heroes/heroines are the force behind romance novels.
  • Horror: Another self-describing name, Horror novels are meant to scare (or at least
    cause dread) in the reader. They can join with fantasy to have the horror based around supernatural forces or monsters (such as Stephen King’s It) or stay more grounded in reality with the horror coming from potentially real threats like serial killers (such as in Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs). Either way, Horror is supposed to leave the reader scared.
  • Mystery: Mystery novels are based around solving a crime or unraveling secrets throughout the story. Often times the protagonist is a detective (professional or amateur) who is picking up clues and trying to solve the crime along with the reader  (such as in the entirety of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books). Mystery novels can also be classified as Cozy Mysteries, or just “cozies,” if the tone of the book is lighter/more humorous. Cozy Mysteries tend to have female, amateur sleuths who have some sort of fun job outside their detective work (perhaps owning a novelty store or being a florist) rather than being connected to law enforcement. Cozies are meant to be “fun” mysteries rather than strongly suspenseful.
  • Women’s Fiction/Chick Lit: Women’s fiction (and it’s lighter, sometimes sillier cousin “Chick Lit”) covers novels that are specifically marketed to a female audience, dealing with women’s life experiences or problems that are highly relatable across a female audience. As women statistically tend to read more novels than men as a whole, it is a flourishing genre.
  • Thriller/Suspense: Thriller and Suspense novels in short deal with harm that is about to befall a person or group and characters who are trying to stop that from happening. For example, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels or Scott Bell’s Abel Yeager novels would classify in this genre with ex-military men trying to stop terrorists or bring down drug cartels.

Noticeably missing from the list above, perhaps, is “Young Adult” fiction. While sometimes listed as a genre in its own right, Young Adult fits into the category of age groups over genre, and thus can be added to any of the genres listed above (or any of the other genres not mentioned) such as YA Fantasy or YA contemporary fiction. When trying to decide which age group your writing falls into :

  • Children’s: Books aimed at an elementary school audience, approximately ages 7 to 10. They can be short chapter books, but still tend to be easier reads meant for those who are slowly becoming more proficient in their reading skills. Topic subjects tend to stay equivalent to a G rating in movies. 
  • Midgrade: Books aimed at a middle school audience, ages 11-13. The protagonist of
    the story tends to be around the same age as the audience, such as Harry Potter being 11 at the beginning of Book 1 of his series. Topic subjects reach PG.
  • Young Adult: An age grouping that has been expanding in recent years, with many adults also reading Young Adult (YA) these days, the target market of a YA book is high schoolers, age 14-17, often with a protagonist at the upper end of that spectrum dealing with problems high schoolers could reasonably have, such as first loves, finding a place in the world, school (in contemporary YA fiction), and anything that could be classified as “coming of age.” Topics can be more adult, but generally don’t breach PG-13 in how they’re presented.
  • New Adult: A relatively new classification, New Adult (NA) is generally aimed at ages 18-25 (with a protagonist about the same age) and covers topics relevant to college students or “young professionals.” Including novels such as 50 Shades of Gray it is also sometimes called “YA with sex” though sex is obviously not requirement.
  • Adult: Books aimed at the above 25 market.

As I’m sure we’ll see through the entirety of our upcoming “Genres (and why we write them)” series, many books span genres and age groups, so it sometimes isn’t possible to say you write only YA Romance or Adult Contemporary. Genres are a grouping tool. I’ll let the rest of my guest bloggers say if they find that a good or a bad thing over the next few Sundays.

What Should We Call Me?

After many months and more rounds of edits than probably healthy, cover reveal day is finally here for my forthcoming fantasy novel Off Book. A rather meta-humor story (where the characters in it are well aware that they’re characters in a book) I think the title suits it.


Of course… that wasn’t always the title. Just like the several edits the overall story went through between initial writing and now, the book’s title has gone through no less than four iterations (after being discussed in multiple marketing meeting). And so it seemed to be the perfect day to discuss just what makes a good title.

1. Don’t feel like you need a title right away.

Some authors come up with their titles before ever putting pen to paper, some are still looking for a good one as they get a query ready to send. Personally, I find coming up with titles feels more difficult than actually writing a full novel half the time and so I often have “working titles” while writing a book that will likely change three or four times before I’ve reached “the end” There is absolutely no problem with not having a title while you’re working on a book. Just make sure that you can always find your file if you work on a computer by having a “working title” that is distinct enough (for example, title it after your main character rather than just “Story” or “Untitled”)

2. Look for strong themes

Either while planning (if you like to title before writing a book), writing (if you like to title while in process), or editing (if you like to title after) keep an eye out for strong themes you could build a title around. Is your character dealing with a certain emotion? Look for words that embody that. Does your character have a distinct name? Try to figure out if there is a way use that (one of the early titles of Off Book was Ashes to Ashes because of the character’s last name, for example, though more on that later). Once you have some focus, it will become easier to narrow down title options.

3. Consider if this is part of a series.

If you are writing a series, take into consideration if there are any title patterns you will want to use. Many series try to use similar sounds for their books. For example George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords…), Traci Borum’s Chilton Crosse Series (Painting the Moon, Finding the Rainbow…), or even my own Broken Line Series (The Copper Witch, The Porcelain Child, The Paper Masque) Each book has a unique title, but follows the same pattern (A ____ of ____. ___ing the ____. The ____ ____) If you are coming up with the title for a later book of a series, try to find a way to tie it to the previous books. If you are titling the first book of a series, try to come up with something that will allow for similar follow-up titles.

4. Do some market research.

This is where things can get a little bit trickier, for while titles can be just as creative as the books inside the cover, titles are largely about marketing. You want to find something that catches the reader’s eye, fits the feel/genre of the book, and (where many people get tripped up) doesn’t get lost in search results. It is not possible to copyright a title so just because someone has used a certain title before doesn’t mean you can’t. Just because you can, however, doesn’t mean you should. While one of my working titles was Ashes to Ashes, going with that would have likely been a bit of a marketing nightmare. Enough books (and TV shows) have used that title that it was likely my book would get lost far down the search results. Another possibility (Between the Lines) while considered ended up bringing up a number of Romance novels when researched. You don’t necessarily need to go for entirely unique, but you don’t likely want to end up with your book being the 5000th of the same name or immediately assumed to be a different genre than it is because you pick a name associated with a number of [other genre] books. A quick search at the Amazon Kindle Store or otherwise online will help you get an idea if you are on the right track with what you’ve come up with so far.

5. Let your publisher help you.

If you are self publishing, it is up to you to come up with something you can market well, but if you are working with a traditional publisher, listen to their marketing team. You can fight for a title you’ve come up with if you want, but publishers generally have a good reason for asking for title changes (most often having to do with how they intend to market your book) so being willing to work with them will help you down the road. Always consider a title a “working title” until your book hits the shelf.

Off Book: Coming soon from REUTS Publications. Read more about it here, request to be part of the blog tour here, or find it on Goodreads

Twenty-year-old Eloise has learned all she can from the School, where characters live until joining their novels. No one knows genre and plot structure better than her, but despite her knowledge, she’s yet to be assigned to her own story. All her friends are off starting their lives with their authors—and if Eloise doesn’t get assigned soon, she’ll fade away, forgotten by all.

When she is suddenly offered a job at the Recording Office, she takes the chance to write her own future. Suddenly living among the post-storied, Eloise meets Barnaby Fitzwilliam, a former romance novel hero who hasn’t lost any of his in-story charm. But just as their relationship begins to get serious, everything Eloise has been taught gets turned upside down when she’s sucked into a novel she was never meant to be part of.

Now, caught where the only rules are made by the authors and truly anything is possible, Eloise must find her way back home—or else her life might end before she ever gets the chance to live it.

Set in a world dictated by Authors, OFF BOOK explores the story beneath the stories we all know and love, taking readers and characters alike on an adventure just waiting to be written.


Rejectomancy or: Why did they really say ‘no’?

Rejection is part of an author’s life. Sure, every once in a while there are those lucky people out there who get a “yes, we want more” with the first query they send an agent or publisher, but most of us who go the traditional publishing route are at least marginally well acquainted with the standard “thanks but no thanks” form letter.

Having worked in acquisitions before, however, I sometimes get asked what certain letters “mean”. Do they suggest that there’s a problem with the story? Or just that the agent loves it and just doesn’t have the time to take it on?

For the vast majority of rejection letters, the answer is that they can mean either, neither, or both.

Every once in a while, you might get lucky and get a personalized rejection that is along the lines of “we really liked this, but we don’t think we can take it right now because X, Y, and Z.” But 99 percent of the time, if you’re hearing “no” you’re likely going to get a form letter.

Sometimes form letters will let you know that they are form letters (generally as an apology, for example: “I apologize for the form letter, but the volume of query letters I receive makes it impossible to send personal responses to every writer.” [yes, that’s from one of my own rejection letters]) but many will simply follow the same basic formula:

1) Thank you for writing/contacting me/letting me read your submission.

2) Unfortunately I don’t feel it is quite right for me right now/I don’t think it’s the right fit.

3) Best of luck on your future endeavors.

4) Signature

Believe me, having been dealing with submissions on both sides for over five years, I am well acquainted with seeing that letter time and time again. It is the standard “thanks but no thanks” set up in the publishing world.

Still, the vagueness of those letters sometimes gets to people, and they start trying to practice what I have heard termed “rejectomancy“–the practice of trying to discern just what led to that thanks but no thanks letter. Does “right fit” mean that it’s not a genre they really like? Is “not quite right” mean that it’s a little off, or is it a nice way of saying my manuscript is awful?

Honestly, there is no way to tell. A form letter could mean just about anything, and so rejectomancy most of the time just serves to drive authors crazy.

“But really,” some people still ask. “What could it mean?”


1. The agent/publisher likes your manuscript, but they don’t think it fits well with their current list. While both agents and publishers will generally provide what genres/kinds of books they tend to represent/publish (and you should always read those lists before hitting send) the fact that they have “fantasy” listed doesn’t mean that your sword and sorcery book will fit in well with the urban fantasy books they are currently trying to sell. They honestly don’t believe it’s a good fit for them, and so they pass.

2. Your query isn’t engaging. You’ll come up against this more with agents than publishers who accept unagented submissions, but sometimes you will be asked to only send a query letter with nothing else. The agent/publisher will then decided, based on that one page, if the premise is something they might be interested in. If you don’t catch them with your query, off goes the form letter. If you’re worried it might be your query that’s getting you ‘no’s, try to find someone to critique it for you (ideally someone with experiencing in publishing). If you can’t find someone/don’t want to pay for a professional critique, consider posting in somewhere like the NaNoWriMo query critique forum.

3. They don’t believe there’s currently a market for your story. People sometimes wonder how books that seem typo-ridden and, well, poorly written end up getting published when their book, which is at least better than that, hasn’t found an agent/publisher. The biggest reason tends to be that publishers often work on trends. Marketing higher-ups try to predict what might sell next year (it can take up to a year or more for books to go from accepted to print), and they start snapping up things that fit that market. A few years ago it was vampires. More recent trends have been time travel and dystopias. Trends rise and fall with no real consistency, but if you’re shopping a vampire book and the thing publishers seem to be buying now are ghost stories, you’ll end up with more “thanks but no thanks” letters than if you’re on trend. After all, publishers are trying to make money, not just publish good books.

4. Your writing is really bad. Yes, we have to face it, sometimes it isn’t the market or the agent/publisher’s taste. It’s that your masterpiece just isn’t that good. Perhaps you didn’t edit it as well as you should have and there are three typos a page. Perhaps you’re just not quite up to professional level and don’t realize it (I tried querying my first novel at sixteen, I fully understand now why I didn’t have any bidding wars over it…) Working in acquisitions you see a manuscripts that range from “not quite ready” to “I can’t read this from all the typos” Both will get the standard “thanks but no thanks” along with everyone else the majority of the time.

5. The agent/publisher’s list is currently full. Sometimes agents and publishers will close submissions when they don’t have any more time/space for more books. Sometimes they’ll keep them open just on the off chance that they see a query they can’t bear to pass up. If you happen to query during one of these times, your story might be good, great even, but it just isn’t the exact one in a million manuscript they’d be willing to take on while they’re already stretched thin. Normally they might take it, but with their current work load, say hello to the “thanks but no thanks” letter.

6. The agent/publisher/slush pile reading intern is having a really bad day. Acquisitions works slightly differently from company to company. Some places the agents read each query themselves. Sometimes they have an assistant. The current publisher I work with has two acquisitions editors read each submission and give their suggestions before making a decision. When I worked in acquisitions at a separate publishing house the interns gave suggestions one way or the other, but any of the editors working there had full leeway to say “yes” or “no” for any reason. Those reasons could include any of the above, or just they have an aversion to seeing “said X” rather than “X said”, and after finding it in the past three really bad submissions they aren’t willing to give your good submission a chance. Is that good business practice, perhaps not, but when you’re getting hundreds of submissions daily, you can afford to be nit-picky like that.

And so, as you can see, that “thanks but no thanks” letter can mean just about anything. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to figure out just what each word of those three sentences mean or you’ll never make it through the submissions process.

Guest Post: Tracy Lawson

Today’s post comes to us from the lovely Tracy Lawson, author of CounterAct, out August 6, 2014. Find out more about Tracy below, at her website, on Facebook, or Twitter


Last month, when my publisher told me the manuscript for Counteract was headed for the printer, my first instinct was to ask for it back. What if I needed to make some changes? How could I be sure it was ready?

I imagine plenty of first-time authors contend with either impatience or perfectionism at some point in the writing / publishing process. Some rush to submit a manuscript that’s not been developed to its full potential, or that hasn’t been properly edited. Others hang back, fearing rejection, caught in the backspin of obsessive editing and tweaking.

I fell victim to both as I went through the process with Counteract. Jessica Dall, my lovely host, is the author of Write. Edit. Publish, a great step-by-step primer on how to navigate the publishing process. I wish I could say I followed all her advice and avoided the common pitfalls, but alas, that was not the case. I wish I’d read her book before I began!

Here’s some of the stuff I learned the hard way:

1. Go through several drafts and revisions to assure the story is developed, polished, and ready.

I was so pumped when I finished the first draft, and couldn’t wait to find a publisher. I rationalized that I didn’t really need to go through several revisions, because that would take forever! Off it went, but the industry professionals to which I submitted the manuscript knew it wasn’t ready yet. In fact, it probably took longer to find a publisher because I’d wasted so much time sending it out prematurely.

2. Seek input only from impartial, professional third parties.

I’d been shot down a few times, and I needed some reassurance, so I asked friends and family what they thought of the story. Trouble was, I didn’t want to take their advice. One friend suggested that what Counteract was lacking was a character based on her!

3. Hire an editor.

Most editors will do a free sample edit. I took advantage of several before I found the editor that was right for me. I trust her implicitly, and working with her has made me a better writer, hands down. Susan did a super job of cleaning the manuscript, but I sensed the first chapter still wasn’t drawing readers in like it should. So I went one step further and sought the advice of a writer acquaintance. Her critique of the first chapter was insightful and spot on. In the final round of submissions, I had six different publishers interested in the manuscript.

4. Get out of your rut.

It’s easy to see why some writers prefer to obsessively edit rather than submit their manuscripts and risk rejection. It’s safer to keep editing, rather than risk having a substandard product go out into the world. But obsessive editing is procrastination, especially when you edit a half-finished draft. But I couldn’t help it. Sometimes I needed to stay in a certain section of the manuscript and reboot my courage before I reached out into the next scene.

Once I’d signed the contract with Buddhapuss Ink, LLC, my project went into the queue, and it was several months before the publisher would be working on it in earnest. When she told me I should look it over, tweak it, and get it exactly the way I wanted, I was so relieved! I took advantage of that time, and I probably could’ve tweaked it a little more, but then I would’ve delayed realizing a lifelong goal—to see my first novel in print.


author picTracy Lawson knew she wanted to be a writer from the time she could read. While working toward her Bachelor’s degree in Communication at Ohio University, she studied creative writing with Daniel Keyes, author of Flowers for Algernon. After short stints as a media buyer and an investigative analyst, she settled into a 20-year career in the performing arts, teaching tap in Columbus, Ohio, and choreographing musicals. Though her creative energies were focused on dance, she never lost her desire to write, and has two non-fiction books to her credit: Fips, Bots, Doggeries, and More, winner of the 2012 Ohio Professional Writers Association’s Best Non-fiction History Award (McDonald & Woodward), and  Given Moments (Fathers Press).

Tracy’s love for writing new adult fiction is sparked by all wonderful teens in her life, including her daughter Keri, a college freshman. Counteract is Tracy’s first novel.



Coming 8.6.14

Two strangers—their destinies entwined—must work together to thwart a terrorist the
country never suspected. The Office of Civilian Safety and Defense has
guarded the public against the rampant threat of terrorism for the last fifteen years with the
full backing of the US government. Their carefully crafted list of Civilian Restrictions means no concerts or sporting events, no travel, no social media, no cash transactions, and no driver’s licenses for eighteen-year-olds Tommy and Careen. The OCSD has even outlawed grocery stores, all in the name of safety.

Now, there’s a new threat-airborne chemical weapons that could be activated at any time. But the OCSD has an antidote: Just three drops a day is all it takes to stay safe. It’s a small price to pay for safety. Or is it…

Write, Edit, Publish: The Best of The Jessica Dall Blog

June 17th is here once again, and that means one thing. It’s my birthday. And to celebrate, I have a gift for all you readers out there:


Write, Edit, Publish includes some of this site’s most popular blog posts compiled into a downloadable eBook, covering everything from staring with a blank page to working on getting a manuscript published.

Download for FREE right here: Write, Edit, Publish [PDF]

Or FREE on Smashwords: Write, Edit, Publish

(Soon available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble)


Write, Edit, Publish articles include:

Section One: Writing

Getting Started

Writing Prompts

Finding Time to Write

Writing through Writer’s Block

Inner Filters

Character Naming

What’s in a Name?

Historical Naming

Who are you, again?


From Premise to Plot

“Accidental Plagiarism”

[X] Types of Plot


Making Your Characters Believable

Character Flaws

“Plot Device” Disorders

Just a Pretty Face


You Don’t Say

Floating Dialogue


Writing Shakespeare

Head Jumping


Section Two: Editing

Editing 101

Plot and Plot Holes

The Ever-Dreaded Plot Holes

A Wizard Did It

That’s Just…Wrong


The Problem with Pronouns

The Unneeded Words

All of a sudden, he was suddenly there

Critique Groups

How to Take a Critique

Crises of Confidence

The Nitty-Gritty

Does Length Matter?

Eh, it’s not my style

“Intensive Purpose”


Section Three: Publishing

Self, Vanity, Traditional Publishing

Shoot the Shaggy Dog


How to Get Published

Submissions 101

Wishlists and Trends

Word Counts

Word Limits

Copyrights and Contracts


Novel Blogs

Toe Tappin’ Copyrights


Novel Layout Tips

Shoot the Shaggy Dog

Like any industry, writers, editors, and publishers have their own lingo. While it helps save time when you know it, some people just starting out might not know exactly what a publisher means when they’re sending out ARCs or what to do when an editor tells you you should Lampshade something. So, for those just starting out:

1. CMS: Chicago Manual of Style, a style guide also known as the editing bible for most publishers. Where newspapers use AP Style and academic periodicals tend to use APA, publishers 99 percent of the time turn to CMS for all those tricky style questions.

2. ARC: Advance Review Copy, a copy of a book which is close to being released given to book reviewers and beta readers. Also called “galleys” ARCs might have a few typos the final proofreaders need to catch before the launch, but they allow reviewers time to read the book and have a review ready around the official release date.

3. Lampshade: Also known as “Lampshade Hanging“, Lampshading is a writing device where the writer acknowledges that what they have just written might seem improbable enough to threaten a reader’s suspension of disbelief. It serves the purpose of highlighting that the author knows that what just happened seems improbable and often is played for laughs (for example, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince movie, Professor Mcgonagall asks, “Why is it that when something happens it is always you three?” Ron Weasley’s answer: “Believe me Professor, I’ve been asking myself the same question for six years.”)

4. Meta Data: Information about a book that helps it get to the right readers. Meta data includes the ISBN, keywords, publication date, etc.

5. As you know, Bob…: A form of exposition where a character is speaking of something for purely the reader’s sake. This is often started with “As you know…” with the writer then using dialogue to explain things even though everyone else in the scene knows the information already. Due to its unnatural feeling, it is generally discouraged. It can, however, be lampshaded, for example (sticking to the Harry Potter theme) Voldemort in A Very Potter Musical stating “I know, I hear everything you hear!” when Professor Quirrell outlines exposition at the beginning of a scene.

6. Duology: The lesser known cousin of a trilogy–a series consisting of only 2 books, such as Tamora Pierce’s Trickster’s Choice/Trickster’s Queen or Carol Berg’s The Lighthouse duology.

7. POV: Point of View. Whether it’s first person (I), third person (he/she), or little used second person (you), every book is written with a POV. The POV character is whose thoughts the reader follows. Poorly controlled POV in “third person limited” (where the narrator is a character in the story limited by their own personal knowledge) can lead to headjumping, so it is important to figure out who is relating the scene as a narrator, be it the “I” or a “He” character (if you’ve had me as an editor, you might be familiar with the note “POV slip” in a third-person novel)

8. Epistolary Novel: “Epistolary” meaning “written in a series of letters” an epistolary novel is a novel which is written as though it is other written documents (be it letters, emails, texts, or anything else).

9. Foreword/Author’s Note/Introduction/Prologue: Often all confused for each other, each means something a little different at the beginning of a novel. A Foreword is something written by another person about the novel/author (often written by people more famous than the author themselves or a mentor for academic works), an author’s note is something that is written by the author that is at the beginning of a book, but not part of the story. An introduction is close to an author’s note, but something generally written by the author about the book that is not part of the story in any way. A Prologue is part of the story that sometimes serves as a “chapter one” but takes place “outside” of the main story (either by happening years before the main story starts or with characters who are not part of the main group). Introduction and Prologue are perhaps the most commonly flipped leading to confusion between people in publishing and those not familiar with the terminology.

10. Shaggy Dog Story: A shaggy dog story is “a plot with a high level of build-up and complicating action, only to be resolved with an anti-climax or ironic reversal, usually one that makes the entire story meaningless.” As TV Tropes explains, “The classic example is a man who bankrupts himself trying to return a shaggy dog to a rich family in England for reward money — when he finally makes it there, he’s told that the dog “wasn’t that shaggy” before the door’s slammed in his face. The End.” A shaggy dog story can be one-upped by becoming a “Shoot the Shaggy Dog” where not only has the story been meaningless, but the characters end up going to meaningless deaths for their trouble. Nineteen-Eighty-Four has been dubbed a “Shoot the Shaggy Dog” story where (spoilers) the main character, after spending the novel trying to break out of his dystopia, is beaten back down, scheduled for execution, and entirely content with it.


Want to carry this and other posts with you wherever you go? Download Write, Edit, Publish for free today.

Worth the Wait

If there is one thing that I wish I could go back and tell my younger self about publishing, it would be ‘take your time’. With my newest book ramping up for release, I have received a number of emails/IMs/Facebook messages from aspiring authors asking questions about how to get published (or If I can help them get published some of the time). While the answer the second question is “I can help tell you about the publishers with whom I have worked, but no, I can’t go and tell them to publish you”, my general advice is to slow down.

As far as answering questions, I am always happy to help just about anyone who asks for it. Far too often I read posts from new writers stating it’s “impossible” to get a book published. Unfortunately, this sentiment is often what has authors fall into the trap of working with a vanity press (a press which charges authors to put their books out). It makes sense why many new writers fall into that trap (and at least enough do to support all the vanity presses around) but being in that much of a rush only leads to problems later down the line.

Recently, I received a question from an author who had published their first book with a vanity press which shall remain nameless and was unhappy with how sales were going. After having paid over a thousand dollars in “start-up costs” (something no reputable publisher will ask for) she hadn’t made even half of it up in sales over the year. She asked if I thought she should now try to find an agent to go with traditional publishing with the hopes that the time/rejection that meant would lead to better sales.

While I would recommend anything over vanity presses (either self-publishing through a platform like Createspace or Lulu) or pursuing traditional publishing (through a large or small press), that ship has sadly most likely sailed. While it is true that some previously self-published books are picked up by traditional publishers later on in their careers, most publishers contract “first publication rights”. What this means is publishers are buying the right to make your book available to the public before anyone else. Once your book as been published (be it through a self-publisher, vanity press, or public novel blog) those rights have been used up and publishers won’t contract the book outside of it being an independent commercial success. The likelihood of them picking it up from a vanity press, especially with the book not selling particularly well, is slim to nil. It’s just not worth their time, effort, or money.

All is not lost for the question asker, of course, she is not forever blacklisted somewhere. Any new book she writes she can either self-publish through a non-vanity press platform or attempt to traditionally publish. This first book is just a bit of a costly mistake.

And so, never be in a rush to publish. Is pursuing traditional publishing confusing sometimes when you’re starting out? Definitely. Does it mean a lot of rejection/effort? More than likely. Is it better than paying someone to publish your book for you? You can bet your socks.

This is not to say that self publishing is also a bad. There are several writers who have found success through self-publishing. Not, however, by rushing. Authors chose to self publish for a number of reasons, amongst them more creative control or writing something that would have a hard time finding a traditional outlet. “I want it published now” should not be the main reason for pursuing self-publishing either, however. Some self-published books are as good, if not better, than traditionally published books with amazing quality. It is up to the author however to make it that way which can take a fair chunk of time and effort, especially when it comes to paying for editors/cover artists/etc. (in self publishing you will be paying upfront for publishing, but namely for freelancers, not a package from a company. Combined with a platform that lets you post books for free, such as the ones mentioned above, this is almost always cheaper than a vanity press without tying yourself to a less-than-reputable company). Self-publishing will likely be a quicker route to publishing than traditional publishing (unless you’re one of the lucky ones who find a publisher on their first query) but to make a quality product it still takes time. You control the release date, but there is no reason taking another six months or a year to make your book the best it can be will make or break the project.

Especially because, as an author, your name is your product. And the internet has a very long memory. If you pay to have a vanity press produce a book (especially a vanity press that doesn’t do a good job editing) people will end up finding that press and book tied to your name even after you’ve moved one to bigger and better things. If you rush a self-published book that just isn’t ready (one with typos and bad cover art) you might later be able to remove it from print, but copies/traces of it online won’t magically disappear.

As an author you will always be improving. Even now, with my third novel just about to come out and over five years of editing under my belt, I don’t pretend I’m a perfect writer. Each new book that comes out will likely be a little better than the last (I would hope) simply because the more you do something the better you tend to get at it. There is no need to chase perfection, but there is also no need to rush. Do your best to only put things out that your future writer self will be proud to have their name on. True, that’s sometimes easier said than done, but truly, there’s no rush. Take your time to make a brilliant product. After all, as an author, your name is your brand.

Layout Templates

Happy New Year’s Eve to everyone (and apologies for the late post this week). Recently I was asked about book and manuscript formatting. While I previously posted some Layout Tips to make your book look more professional when laying out your text yourself, I thought I would now offer a template as a late holiday present.

As a winner’s gift, Createspace offers NaNoWriMo winners a code for free copies of their book when uploaded to Createspace. While I don’t intend to self-publish my NaNo novel (especially not while it’s still a rough draft) I thought it would be fun to at least see what it looked like in book form for now. Thus, not wanting to spend too much time on it, I changed the story format from manuscript to book format. For anyone who is likewise intending to turn their manuscript into a book, I present you with the template I created:

Book Layout [.docx]Book Layout

While (if you’re intending on full self-publishing at professional quality) this template no way replaces what a professional might do, it is a good start for beginners, including all the headers and section breaks you need to upload a word document to a self-publishing platform as a book.

For those who are looking to submit their manuscripts to agents or publishers (after editing, please, please, please) here is my general manuscript formatting (check each agent’s/publisher’s guidelines before submitting, in case they ask for something specific, but a good all-around format to look professional when submitting):

Manuscript Layout [.docx]Manuscript Layout

If anyone has problems downloading the files, please contact me and I’ll be happy to help.

Happy Holidays!