>The Writer Answers

>*Sorry about this, most of the post seems to have got cut SOMEHOW when this first went up. So, let’s do this properly this time.*

Partly because I wasn’t sure what to write about, and partly because I think we keep trying to do articles on specialized points while there is a vast under-store of ignorance there that we aren’t even scratching, (mostly because today I got yet another nice email from a nice young man asking me to help him get published) I figured I’d ask my fans what I should be answering.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to certainties. I find that in casting my eyes over most of the entries, most of them are things I’d have answered unwaveringly a year or two ago but of whose answer I’m not absolutely sure now. Because ebooks are changing the way business is done, I can give you the “official” – i.e. this is how I did it/would have done it till recently – answer, then the answer I SUSPECT is true now. The caveat for those is please remember I broke in THIRTEEN years ago, and the new realities of the market are not something I’ve experienced first hand. I might know a little more than you, but only because I read blogs and listen to friends. I don’t know for sure.

I’ll use the questioner’s name for the question, then OA for official Answer then BG for Best Guess.

SS:To agent, or not to agent? And, if yes, *how* to agent?
What the heck is a “query”, and how does one go about concocting such a beastie?

OA: You have to have an agent to get published with a big publishing house. I suggest writing a query for your best novel (no one agents short stories). Then ask published writers for recommendations to agents and/or snoop on authors blogs to figure out who their agents are. Read the agents’ descriptions for fit with your work. Before sending queries to your picked ten or so, check preditors and editors to make sure you didn’t pick skunks. Send out. If one replies, then send out whatever they ask for, no more no less. Do not send out proposals or manuscripts to more than one agent at once. Wait for an answer. If the agent offers to represent you, watch very carefully to see how enthusiastic they are. You want an agent who LOVES your work.
A Query is a lot like the blurb in the back of a book, with a difference, you actually tell the agent/editor how it ends.

BG: Someone I respect greatly in the field just said it’s stupid to have an agent these days, that in the current publishing climate an agent gets you nothing. I don’t fully understand her angle unless she’s counting out all of big publishing, but she’s not the first much-more-established-writer than I that I heard it from, and when she says stuff like that, I wonder.

JD: Contracts: What’s fair? What’s a Trap? How far to trust your agent?

OA: At the most basic, contracts should establish that money flows to the writer. Anything requiring you to pay is unacceptable. Beyond that, there are many things that are traps, things that you should be able to figure out with common sense: contracts that get the rights to all your characters, or where you transfer copyright to the publisher. (This might be all right for SOME short stories, like using other people’s characters per invite. NEVER for a novel, unless it’s a media tie-in.) Other clauses to watch for will say things like, you can’t work for anyone else until your story is PUBLISHED. Since you can’t control the date of publication this could tie you up forever. Sometimes they just say you can’t work for anyone else period. Anything like that, run very fast. And if your agent tells you it’s okay, run from agent, too.

CDC: Keeping track of query letter and sent manuscript submissions and responses.
OA: I haven’t done this in very, very long. It’s far more important for short stories, when it climbs into the dozens. But I suggest a spreadsheet program, or else one of many specialized programs available. I’m blanking on names, can someone in the audience help. I’m thinking of Write Again. Not sure if that’s true.

MB: Alpha readers, beta readers, writing groups, and all that. I just had someone fretting about “losing their ideas” if they participate in a writing group — I told them they were more likely to never find their ideas if they didn’t participate. But… there’s that running fear that somehow talking to people will ruin you, somehow?
OA: You need reality checkers. I’ve covered writing groups in several columns, and the importance of finding a writer group that works for you. If a writer group isn’t doable, at least find two critique partners you can trust and trade manuscripts.
No, you’re not going to have your ideas stolen. And no, no one can change your writing style, or at least not permanently. It is human to influence each other, but life also influences you. To grow you have to change and you don’t live in an hermetically sealed bag.

SS: In the absence of a co-conspirator with remarkably pointy shoes, how to recognize when one has reached the point of “polishing the cannonball”, as we called it in the Navy, and firing off a submission rather than endlessly re-reading and re-revising …
OA: Ah. I do this too and I went through long years without co-conspirators. It’s hard. My advice is that when you feel like you’re adding more errors than you’re removing (you find the subplot you just added in doesn’t mesh with an earlier one, for instance) or when you feel you’re being particularly clever (no, seriously, this is usually a symptom) or when you go above 200k words, it’s time to let go. Otherwise, establish an arbitrary number of passes, say, five. After five passes it leaves the house. (I can only do three or I kitchen sink it – I throw in EVERYTHING plus the kitchen sink.)

BG: If you’re going to self-publish as is an option this day, hire a trusted copy editor. I don’t care how good you are, you’ll drive yourself insane proofing and stuff will still escape you.

OP: As a former wannabe writer, I’m more interested in the business aspects. They are more relevant to my life. Your opinion of the right mix between paid writing and freebies that hook people in, for example.

OA: in general business “coverage” – I was told that you should quit your day job when you were selling fifty percent of everything you sent out. I’ve been there for years but if I had a day job I wouldn’t quit it. I’d guess right now, with the uncertainty, you’d have to be closer to eighty percent. Also, I would advise something I’m just now implementing: have multiple income streams, say novels and short stories and articles and whatever else you can get. If one of them can be regular pay, like a paid blog, that will give you some security. As for mix between paid and free – the freebies I give away that are fiction are usually already-published things. There’s also blogging and mine for my three base blogs (my own, my group blog and the other group blog) are still mostly free, but I’m starting to branch out into paid blog articles. Look, you need the exposure, it’s all there is to it, but if you find it taking most or even half of your time, you’ll have to cut back. Only you can find your balance.

EM – ebooks. Are ebooks merely paper books transformed to electrons? (like the early TV shows were just televised plays) or is there more potential in this medium? Hyperlinks, embedded video, embed sound effects,…..what else?
BG: I don’t know. I find that a book is a book is a book. Once you put in hyperlinks and embedded video, you’re running the risk of people not coming back to the story. Maybe my opinion is influenced by all those examples I’ve seen of this sucking badly. However, I still think a book is a book. But things that can improve the book while just a book are available in e – like the ability to search for a character name/word. That can really help when you want to go back and check on something.

SB – How about baby steps for the very beginning writer, such as how to find someone who can say “you’ve got potential” or ” was that suppose to read like bad Twain?”
OA: I find that “potential” or “talent” is one of the worst lies writers buy into. We have a great desire to write and we want to believe it’s somehow meant to be. Look, the only thing I’ve found “natural talent” or “potential” good for is to give you some things “for free.” In my case it’s characters. I understand Dave Freer got plot for free. The rest we had to work for. What most laymen will tell you is that “you have potential” based on LANGUAGE. Language is easy. It’s the story telling that’s difficult. I am telling you now that if you really want to write, and are willing to study how to, including grammar and expression, you have enough talent. How to find critiquers, OTOH is a problem. Ask at your local library if there’s a writers’ group and then screen them for experience, right field, etc. Alternately, grab a few friends you know are readers and make them read your stuff. (Paying in chocolate works!) This has the advantage that you presumably know your friends’ idiosyncracies.

AKD: Years ago, I had an agent who convinced me to write a truly appalling cover letter cum proposal letter (yes, same document). Which was mailed to every publisher in the world, and was rejected. I parted ways with the agent, but I still have great faith in the series that was rejected. However, I can’t even bring myself to do anything with it, because I’m convinced that it was so appallingly presented that my letter is still be laughed about in the publishers’ offices. Should I just kill the whole idea? Change my name?

Okay. Breathe. First of all 99% of the submissions or queries sent in by a low-status agent don’t even get read. I’m assuming this was not an A lister with offices in NYC, so, chances of it having been read at all are zero. Second, even if it was read, if you got back a standard rejection, it was read by an under-editor or an intern. These stay at the houses a maximum of a year, according to my experience. The chances of anyone now at publishing offices knowing or remembering this letter are zero. Honestly, if you’d done slush, you’d realize what it takes to be memorable in the bad category: death threats, live animals, body parts and nude pictures MIGHT do it. A bad query is as unmemorable as a oh, hum face in a crowd. Don’t change your name. Don’t kill the idea. Just send it out again

BG: or, alternately, publish it yourself on Kindle. *At this point, for certain genres this might be a better way to break in.*

RE: not just tell, SHOW it, if he’s a nose picker have him do it in a scene where it’s funny or inappropriate while being given instructions or mission orders and all he can think about (along with the reader) is where to put the booger.
OA: Okay, this was part of a longer ramble on a different suggestion for another post, I know, but I MUST insist RE go on over to my blog and read the post called Ick. This is an example of something memorable to have the character do that… serves no purpose and makes me instantly go “ick” and fling the book away. Unless you’re writing “gross out horror” for which the market is very limited, you can’t get away with having the VILLAIN do this, much less the hero. Remember your character is supposed to be someone we want to spend time with (if only to see him coming to a bad end.) Evil might fascinate. Gross will just make us look away.

*Crossposted at According To Hoyt*


  1. >Judging Ick! Can be difficult. I have a character who chews tooth picks, which I thought fairly mild as a nervous habit, occasionally trotted out to deliberately affront a snob. The first person I mentioned that to had a seriously negative reaction. I’m still waffling on dropping or retaining it.

  2. >Pam — I didn't mean to write on ick. I just didn't paste most of the post. NO clue how that happened.BTW that is a weird reaction on your reader's part. I consider it as you do.

  3. >Sarah,One of the constants has always been "Money flows to the writer" but as we get into E-books and directly publishing ourselves, we become our own publishers, and hire out the work we're not good at. Proof reading, cover art and so forth.So unless one can coerse one's Grammar Nazi Mother (and mine isn't) to proof it, Clip art or draw or find an old master that works for the cover, the money flow is going to be much less simple than it used to be.

  4. >Gross can – in my humble opinion, of course – ONLY work when it's played for laughs. That's not easy to get right, of course. And different people have different ick levels. Mine are generally very high – it takes a LOT to ick me out.Sarah – this makes a lot more sense than what appeared this morning. Thank you for finding the rest of it!

  5. >Kate,I was appalled to see it was truncated! And my ick is odd. Blood is not an issue but bad personal hygiene is… so I prefer to stay away from ick both in writing AND reading.

  6. >Interesting that there's a feeling there's no point getting an agent. If you don't know how to get your work looked at, what's the alternative (aside from self publishing)?On the topic of undesirable traits, I have a character who takes delight in mildly ticking off other characters. He's quite a frustrating guy, though (I hope) enjoyable to read. Do you think this could annoy a reader?

  7. >Chris LDepends. Heyer made delightful characters who loved getting into fights and annoying other characters, so it can be done — provided there's a reason for it and also that the character is otherwise fairly decent.On the agent — beats me. I'm selling it for the price I got it — free — and it's worth every penny. As I said, unless the author decides not to sell to major presses, I don't know. Of course, any number of writers is now getting in via self-publishing and doing well, so, who knows?

  8. >Sarah, I was only saying to another author who has been around for 10 -15 years like me that everything is changing in the publishing world.What you used to say categorically not to do. Now begins to look like a viable option!The world is changing, grasshopper …

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