Category : Questions from Beginners

  • October 24, 2012

    If the publisher has said "no" to my book, can I try again?


    Someone wrote to ask,  “If a book publisher turns down my proposal or manuscript, does that mean everyone at the publishing house rejected my proposal? Can I try with a different editor? And how long do you have to let it cool with this publisher before I try again?”

    A writer needs to understand the entire decision-making process at most publishing houses. First, your work is more than likely getting into the building by way of an acquisitions editor — often a friend of your agent, somebody you met at a writer’s conference, or the person who lost a bet. They’ll read through it, maybe make some suggestions, and eventually make a decision on whether or not they think it is worth pursuing. (And a note on the process: more and more acquisitions editors are relying on agents to do the filtering out of junk, so the slush pile has largely moved from publishing house to literary agency… which means you may have to sell it to an agent first, therefore adding one more step to this process.)

    Second, the acquisitions editor will generally take it to some sort of editorial committee, where they sit around and make literary jokes (“I’m having a DICKENS of a time with this one!” “Yeah, let’s take a TWAIN out of town!” Editorial types love this sort of stuff… that’s why they’re editors and not writers). Eventually they’ll be forced to talk about the merits of your proposal. If it passes muster, it then moves on to the next step.

    Third, the ack editor takes it on to the publishing committee. This is a group of people generally made up of someone from editorial, marketing, sales, and house administration. The sales people will research how many copies their accounts might buy, the administrative people will explore what the hard costs of producing the book will be, and the marketing people will complain that

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  • October 23, 2012

    Should I negotiate my own book contract?


    I’ve had a number of people write to me and ask something along the lines of,“How can I negotiate my own contract?”

    Okay, let’s get something straight right off the bat: You probably aren’t ready to talk contracts with a publisher. Just admit it right now. You spend your time plunking away at a keyboard, and most of what you learned about publishing contracts came in a 45-minute workshop at some writer’s conference, or possibly in a book you barely understood, entitled something like Understanding Publishing Agreements in 6 Easy Lessons. If that’s the case, let me help educate you: When you start discussing contracts with a publisher, you might want to remember that he (or she) has a team of professionals backing him (or her) up. There’s an entire group of people whose professional existence is to make mincemeat out of you. Lawyers, accountants, bookkeepers — even the assistants probably know more about contracts than you do. Have I scared you yet? I hope so. Because I’m not trying to sound superior — I’m trying to get you to understand how important a contract is in your life. A publishing contract is a legal document governing everything about your book for as long as it’s in print… so you don’t want to sign something without having read it carefully, and without knowing what you are signing. There are going to be clauses that sound like they were created by lawyers for whom English isn’t their first language. There’s fine print. There are terms used that are completely foreign to you. And while the publisher isn’t necessarily trying to force you into signing a bad deal, he (or she) is in business to get the best deal possible and to make as much money as they can.

    Think of it as going to a garage sale and finding a great book — a leather-bound, first edition. Maybe it’s

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  • October 17, 2012

    How can I get the most out of my writing group?


    A reader wrote to say, “I’m going to a big writing conference that encourages us to join a critique group. You’ve talked before about the benefit of being in a critique group, but I was in a critique group that didn’t work. What I’m wondering is how to make a critique group actually WORK. Can you help?”

    I’m a huge fan of critique groups, and have participated in several until I moved or they wised up and threw me out. The experience has taught me a few principles for getting the most out of the group. Here are my Ten Laws of Critique Groups:

    1. Ask yourself why you want a critique group. What do you hope to get out of it? You ought to have clear expectations going in, so that you’ve got something to evaluate the benefits later. Some people basically want to hang out with other writers — more or less the same reason they attend writers conferences. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if that’s your reason for joining, you should easily find a group that fits your needs. Others really want a dedicated group of professional writers to take a careful and thoughtful look at their material. If that’s what you’re after, you’re going to need to put a lot more thought into your group.

    2. The value of a critique group is based almost entirely on the membership. So look for people who are AT YOUR LEVEL or maybe just a bit better than you (if your ego can take it) and talk to them about the group. Basically, people want to know what the commitment will be (a weekly or maybe twice a month meeting that lasts a couple hours), what the expectations are (that members will actually READ the other member’s writings before coming to the meeting), and what the benefit is to them (you’ll hear advice for improving your writing).


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  • October 16, 2012

    How can I improve my online writing group?


    Someone wrote to say, “I signed up for an online writing group. The first meeting was great. Then… nothing. There’s no direction. I don’t know what to do. Help!”

    I know what you mean: You sign up for a writing group, and you’re excited when you receive an email telling you who else is in your group. You introduce yourself to the others. Maybe you go back to check out the things these folks have said on recent topics. One morning you sit down at your computer, log on, and can’t wait to start emailing back and forth with your writing buddies. Then something deflating happens…nobody has much to say. You’re not sure where to start. There’s not really a “leader,” so you don’t want to be the one pushing the group toward a topic, but everybody just seems to be sitting there, waiting for someone else to DO SOMETHING. You start to wonder if this group is a bit off the mark…or if it’s you. Instead of participating in the group, you start thinking of spending your time at something considerably more helpful — like online mah jong.

    If that describes you and your online writing group, may I offer a handful of helpful thoughts?

    First, some perspectives regarding a writing group…

    -The group should be a SUPPORTIVE experience. So keep it positive.

    -The group should be an EDUCATIONAL experience. Share your thoughts openly.

    -The group should be a CHALLENGING experience. Learn to listen.

    -The group should be a FOCUSED experience. The others are there to critique your work, not your character.

    -The group should be a FUN experience. Let people vent, say stupid things, poke fun, make jokes…and you do the same.

    Next, let me offer some ideas to get the most out of your group:

    1. Everybody read an article (maybe an online article) and discuss the writing.

    2. Ditto with a book…but this is considerably

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  • October 2, 2012

    Why does an agent accept or reject an author?


    A prospective author wrote me a note and asked, “What is the main reason you choose to accept or reject an author?”

    An interesting question. The “rejection” part is easy: Most of the people whose projects I reject are NOT turned down because I don’t like them, or because they’re unknowns, or even because I dislike their ideas. Most authors are turned down because they can’t write. Simple as that. Not all, of course. I just saw a very good nonfiction idea, but I’m already trying to sell a similar project and felt it would be unfair to take on something so similar. And with the advent of so many good writing resources, I’m often seeing novels that are well-done, but not of the knock-my-socks-off quality. So a bunch of things I see aren’t bad, but they aren’t great. Or they are 70% done, and they need to be 100% done. I’d say under-writing and under-finishing and under-editing are the reasons so many projects with some merit don’t get picked up. The author gets started, but can’t get finished — or perhaps he or she doesn’t know now to finish. That’s why having a critique group or writing partner can help offer you perspective on your work. Another set of eyes can really make a difference on a manuscript.

    Still, I do get sent some really crummy stuff. Bad ideas. Projects where the author doesn’t speak English. Proposals written in crayon (presumably because the wardens won’t let them play with anything sharp). I hesitate sharing some of them, since I’m always afraid I’m going to really tick off someone who sent me an idea they thought was brilliant, and I found laugh-out-loud bad. But…

    A while back I got in a proposal for a book called “How to Make Out With Chicks.” The author was apparently thirteen, or at least stopped growing emotionally and intellectually at thirteen. (From the tenor

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  • September 25, 2012

    Should I write my friend's memoir?


    After yesterday’s post, I had someone write and say, “I’ve been approached a couple times to collaborate on a book, but I’m not sure I want to go that route with my writing career. Any advice for me?”

    1. Collaborating writers come in four basic packages: COLLABORATORS (they take the miscellaneous meanderings of a smart or interesting person and shape it into coherent text, often finding pertinent material to supplement the content), CO-AUTHORS (they add their own content and generally get some credit for having a mind of their own), GHOST-WRITERS (they create the material, which is often used by a putative “author” with an ego too big to acknowledge the use of a writer), and EDITORS (they simply re-shape or sharpen the cogent thoughts and writings of the author).

    2. What’s most important? Clearly define your roles. No sense writing for someone who really wants you to edit. (This has happened to me on more than one occasion. I do great work…and they toss it out so that they can use their own, lousy wording and feel better about themselves.)

    3. What’s also important? Clearly define your agreement. “I will do THIS for THAT AMOUNT OF MONEY. It should take me THIS much time, so if you give me the material you’ve promised, I should have it for you on THAT date.”

    4. One more thing: Define what “success” is. If they’re paying you for a rough draft, produce it. If they’re paying you for a polished manuscript, produce that. If you don’t define success, you’ll find that YOUR expectations may not match up with the OTHER’S expectations.

    5. Make sure you can do the job. I love writing, and I love learning new things, so I always enjoyed taking on collaborative projects. I learned about guns, about investing in stocks, about fathering, about history — writing collaboratively was as good as any class I ever took

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  • September 17, 2012

    Does a writer need a critique group?


    Someone wrote and asked, “As a beginning writer, is it really important I participate in a critique group?”

    I highly recommend newer writers join a critique group. Often times at writing conferences I’ll have someone come up to me clutching a manuscript to their chest. “Here,” they whisper, looking around furtively. “It’s my manuscript. It’s fantastic. And no one has ever seen it.”

    So I’ll look at them and ask, “And how do you know it’s fantastic?” They invariably answer with something like “I just know” or “people have been encouraging me to write for years” or“my mom loves it.”

    Sorry, not good enough. I don’t trust your personal instincts unless you’ve had at least one bestseller, and your mom loves you too much to view your piece objectively. Every writer needs a critique group. New writer or experienced hand, you gain wisdom when you have other writers looking at your work. A critique group offers you an honest appraisal, and provides an on-going learning experience. The best groups have a nice mix of people, so that your group provides you with a variety of experiences, interests, and personalities commenting on your writing. People get together and offer insight into your work, which will help you improve your writing. It also gives you a place to hang out with like-minded folks — other people who also want to be writers. There is support in the group, and a sense of identity. Get thee to a critique group.

    Now, at the same time, I’ve had a couple dozen people write to ask a related question: “When do I know it’s time to leave my critique group?”

    I suppose it’s time to leave a group when you’ve absorbed what your group has to offer you. This may eventually come when you think you’re experienced enough and confident enough to go it alone — and, in fact, the others in your group

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  • September 10, 2012

    How do I get the most out of my critique group?


    Someone wrote to ask, “How does a critique group work in the real world? What should one of our meetings look like?”

    I love this question, since writers are often encouraged to start a group, but don’t have specifics on how to do so. Some thoughts…  Let’s say you have a group of four to ten people. You agree to meet once per month, somewhere in the middle of the month. On the first of the month (roughly two weeks before your meeting), everybody submits their work to the other members of the group. All the documents are emailed to one another in a Microsoft Word attachment, double-spaced, 12-point font, with plenty of margin space around the words. You may want to limit the page count to five or ten or even fifteen pages (though I know of one group that asks for a chapter per month, leaving the page count to the individual writer’s notion of what a chapter length should be.) There’s a hard and fast rule that you receive it by the first of the month or you ignore it until next month. So you receive everyone’s writing, print it out, read each one, and edit it. You ask questions. You point out things that aren’t clear. You write comments at the end. You try to be polite but honest. If you really want to be professional, you all use the “track changes” feature to make your comments, so that everything is legible.

    Keep in mind that the criticism is of the work, not of the writer. And, as my friend Cecil Murphey likes to say, “Members do not make value judgments — they don’t say ‘this is bad,’ but instead offer suggestions for improving the work.” Participants in a critique group are criticizing your work.They are NOT criticizing you. And on each piece you say at least one nice thing, since everybody needs to hear

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  • August 6, 2012

    How can I get the most out of a writing conference?


    As you begin preparing for this year’s summer conferences, I’d like to suggest you keep ten words in mind…

    1. READ. Don’t just show up and wonder who the speakers are. Read the blog of the keynote speakers. Read the books of the workshop teachers. That way, when you get to hear them, you’ll already have a context for their information.

    2. RESEARCH. If you’ve signed up to meet with an agent or editor, check out their bio, see what they’ve acquired, and get a feel for the sort of books they like. By doing that, you’ll be much more apt to talk with someone who is a fit for you and your work.

    3. ORGANIZE. Before you show up at the conference, look at the schedule and figure out what sessions you’ll be going to, which ones you’ll miss (so that you can share notes later), and when you can take a break to see friends.

    4. PRACTICE. When you sit down across from me in order to tell me about your book, it shouldn’t be an off-the-cuff conversation. Practice what you want to say, how you want to describe your work, and what your hook is so that you’ll grab me.

    5. GOALS. Ask yourself what your goals are for this year’s conference. Don’t just go with bland hopes. Plan to attend with some specific, measurable goals in mind. Write them down beforehand, so that you can evaluate yourself and your experience after you’re back home.

    6. PROJECT. Come to the conference with a book you’re writing firmly in your mind. That way, when you’re listening to a speaker, you can apply the information to the project you’re writing. Even if you later decide to write something else, the fact that you’ve put the techniques into practice will help you improve.

    7. NOTE. Don’t just sit there in workshops and nod at the things you agree with. Take

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  • July 30, 2012

    How can I find a writing mentor?


    Mandy wrote to me and noted, “Recently you encouraged all serious writers to find a writing mentor. How does one do this? I’ve been to several writing conferences and am acquainted with some well-known authors, but I’m not sure I’d ever be bold enough to ask one of them.”

    Well, my first thought is that you keep in mind what a mentor is: Not someone perfect. Not someone on the top of the bestseller lists. Not someone who is necessarily your best friend in the business. A mentor is someone who is a bit further down the path from yourself — a writer with a bit more experience in the field, who can offer you some wise advice and direction, especially when you are trying to grow or you are faced with a major decision. Would you benefit from having that sort of relationship with another writer?

    If so, I’d suggest that it’s tough to walk up to someone you don’t know well and ask, “Will you commit to being my friend?” Most of us would probably find that a bit odd. So focus on one of those experienced authors you already know, perhaps someone you’ve met and enjoyed at a conference, and think about what you’ll say to him or her.

    By using the framework of “talking to a friend,” consider going to that experienced author you’re friendly with and talking with him or her about mentoring. What are their thoughts? Who mentored them? Take the time to write down what you’d like to receive from a mentor (a chance to talk things over? career guidance? some wisdom when faced with big questions? suggestions for writing exercises?), so that it’s clear in your own mind what your expectations are. If you don’t know what you want, it’s tough to explain it to someone else.

    Approach the person in a one-on-one setting sometime and simply say, “I have a favor

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