The Writing FAQ

All About the Writing Game

How do I become a writer?

You read. You write. It’s a lot like music — you need practice. Lots of it. There are always prodigies who write brilliant first novels and earn millions and win the Pulitzer or the Booker or the Hugo or whatever your chosen genre’s pinnacle of achievement is — but most “overnight successes” have had years of unacknowledged hard work behind them before they actually hit the big time for you to hear about them. There are lots of people pushing and shoving for space in the trenches, though, so be prepared to be obstinate, persistent, and above all, willing to learn. And you never stop learning. Not even when you reach the top. Especially not then.

How do I get an agent/publisher?

The hard way. Publishing is a tough, closed business. Too many publishers no longer even look at unagented manuscripts; too many agents won’t take on a first-time author without a track record. You are left in the paradoxical position of being unpublishable if you aren’t already published. And yet the publishing business can’t be completely closed to outsiders, because otherwise the current crop of authors would slowly dwindle and disappear and publishing would come to an end. New blood has to come from somewhere. You simply have to be good enough to be better than the rest, and find a publishing professional who likes your stuff enough to take a chance on you. Do your homework and find out who the agent and/or the editor is of a writer you particularly like or admire. Write them a killer query letter describing your work, telling the agent/publisher why you picked them (because they already represent/publish someone whose success you think and hope you can start to emulate). And then accompany the query with sparkling material. Find the right person and catch their eye. It has been done before, and it can be done again.

Will you introduce me to your agent/publisher?

I’m sorry, but no. In the writing world, you don’t ever ask a published professional, especially a complete stranger, for a recommendation to their agent. It’s seen as pushy and rude. There are plenty of instances where an older writer has mentored a younger one into professional circles, but seldom because the younger writer asked to be introduced to the movers and shakers.

There are a lot of resources available to the fledgling writer in their search for a place in the (publishing) sun, from Web sites to workshops. Use them. Unless you’re very lucky and catch the eye of someone “in the business,” there really is no substitute for chutzpah, hard work, an ability to make informed choices, and pure persistence. And a modicum of talent never hurts.

A publisher has offered to produce my book if I pay them money — should I do it?

No. The first rule of writing is that the money should flow toward the author. Never pay to have your work published. While it may be perfectly legitimate to write for free if you do it knowingly so that you might get a point of view across (things you might publish on semi-pro or personal websites come to mind) or in order to provide yourself a soapbox, or things you write for or on behalf of friends — paying to have your work published is often a scam (the so-called “vanity publishers”). There are other options — print-on-demand, self-publishing, either in print or ebook, for example, an entirely different thing from a vanity press — but they have their own problems, such as poor distribution and marketing totally in the hands of the author.

A related scam involves agents that charge a “reading fee.” Others will tell you your manuscript just needs a little work; they just know they can place it after you have had it professionally edited. And naturally, they just happen to know an editor with very reasonable rates (who they likely get a kickback from, if there’s not a closer relationship involved). There are in fact professional editors and book doctors who can help you get your manuscript whipped into shape, but these will have credentials you can verify, and they will be glad to show you samples of their work. Be wary of an agent that charges you any type of fee or refers you to someone else who does, especially if you’ve never heard of them. A real agent will just reject you outright if they don’t think they can place your manuscript (though if you’re getting close, you may get an encouraging note with the rejection).

Will you read my novel and tell me if it’s any good?

Well — let’s put it this way, I used to be an editor for a living. In fact, I still am, when I’m not writing my own books. But the operative words are “for a living” — that is, I charge for it. No, I won’t just read your book and tell you my opinion; that as and of itself is worthless anyway because I am not a publisher, and so my opinion is not useful to get the work considered by one. I have helped younger writers find their feet, both by providing editorial advice and by teaching writing courses.

If you’re still interested in having me edit your work and are willing to pay, e-mail me. But be aware that I have less time for such projects than I once did. I earn a living now as a writer, which has always been what I wanted to do. That means my working time is precious to me — I’d frankly rather be spending it writing my own stories, not helping someone else with theirs.

That said, my husband and I offer one-on-one mentoring. Email me for details.

How do I prevent my ideas from being stolen?

This is a largely groundless fear. Professional writers, editors, and publishers are not in the business of stealing ideas. Most publishers run across more publishable manuscripts than they can afford to publish and promote, so they’re not hurting for ideas, either. Besides, coming up with ideas is the easy part of writing. What matters is what you do with your ideas, and that will always be very different from what someone else would do with the same ideas. For this reason the law does not protect your ideas, only how you’ve expressed them. (You shouldn’t worry about a legitimate writer, agent, editor, or publisher stealing your actual writing, either. That almost never happens thanks to modern copyright law, which states that you own anything you write as soon as you’ve written it down. You don’t even need to register your writing to be protected by the law.)

So if the ideas are the easy part, where do you get yours?

The idea tree in my back garden, of course. I go out and just pluck one off when I need one… No, seriously — this is a questions often asked of writers, so often that it drives many of them mad, or at least sarcastic. (Famously, Harlan Ellison often says that he gets his ideas from a post office box in Schenectady.) There is no one answer. If you are open to them, ideas are everywhere. The conversations of complete strangers, for instance, overheard in supermarket checkout lines or crowded elevators, are priceless sources of inspiration. So are newspapers and magazines and even other stories. Every writer has had the experience of reading a book with an interesting idea or two and exclaiming “I could have done it better!” All you need is a seed — something you can plant in the fertile soil of your imagination, and you will soon have an idea tree of your very own, laden with fruit ripe for picking. You just have to learn to ask yourself, every minute you’re awake, “How could I use what I just heard (or saw or read) in my writing?”

By the way, a single idea will, if you’re lucky, turn into a decent short story. (Two ideas is better.) A novel, being much larger, will require lots of ideas. If you have “an idea” for a book, you’re about a hundred ideas short. Yes, I did say that coming up with ideas is the easy part of writing. By that I mean it’s easier than the other parts — not that it’s not work in itself. However, it does get easier once you’ve settled on a few central ideas and start doing research. So get planting!

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