Simple FAQ on writing
These are some questions previously posted on my FAQ page, which I thought might still be useful
The Writer's Craft
- What challenges does a new author face?
- What challenges don't they face. The publishing industry is currently going through a funk attributed to everything from 9/11 to the lousey economy. Write good books, learn to write better ones, be patient and keep writing.
- How much can I expect to earn as a new author?
- I've heard that the average advance on the first novel is about $2,500. There are certainly a lot of things that factor in, but don't write to make fast money. Write because you can't do anything else.
- How can I get my book published?
- There are many different paths to getting published. Since I'm neither an agent nor an editor, I may not be the best person
to answer this question. Remember, this advice is worth what you paid for it!
I followed Orson Scott Card's advice from his book Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy -- which I believe is still available from Writer's Digest -- I strongly suggest new writers buy this book as well as AJ Budrys's Writing to the Point. Card suggested you send the first three chapters (or 100 pages), a synopsis of the completed book (1-2 pages single spaced), and a cover letter. In the cover letter you say something to the effect of -- "Here are the first 100 pages of my completed manuscript a fantasy novel. Would you like me to submit it to you?" Then send it to every publisher who publishes the kind of book you've written. Now I'm not certain this still would work -- as many of the publishing houses no longer read their slush piles. Ace does, and I believe Tor and Baen do also.
Alternatively, go to science fiction conventions where there are editors attending and talk to them. Take them to lunch, pitch your book gently (I know one editor who had people hand her manuscripts under the bathroom stall door! She did not buy it.) and, if they agree, you can send it with a note that it is a requested manuscript. That keeps you out of the slush pile. If you get an offer, don't agree to anything until you have an agent (which is much easier to find with an offer in hand). An agent may not get you more money, initially, but they can negotiate on the sticky points -- like when you will be paid, and foreign rights.
Editors are people who love books. They are happy to find books that are readable. If they get a manuscript they like, they buy it. If they get a manuscript that has promise, they look for reasons to buy it with the idea that maybe this might be a writer who will be good with a couple of more books under his belt. Most of the manuscripts they receive are not publishable and that is why they don't buy them. There is no secret club with a secret handshake. The same thing goes for agents. That is not to say that there aren't authors who had connections when their books were purchased. Robert Jordan, as people like to point out, was married to his editor when he got the contract for the Wheel of Time books. But he got the contracts because he could write, not because he was married to his editor, though I'm sure it helped. But remember, J. K Rowlings knew nobody when Harry Potter was published.
There is a learning curve involved. Just because your first book (or your fifth) doesn't sell doesn't mean that the next one won't. I know a writer who wrote for ten years and went from not selling anything to selling three or four short stories a month. He learned how to write.
- What about Agents?
- This is a bit like asking about marriage. If you ask twenty people you'll probably get twenty answers, all valid, and all based on a particular individual's experience. First, you need to have a realistic vision of what you bring to the table, and have realistic expectations of the agent. A good agent knows books. More specifically, a good agent knows editors, in your genre, and knows what they like to purchase. They also know all sorts of little dirty tricks that various publishers like to include in their contracts, and they know when to settle and when to push for a better deal. A good agent is a valuable ally, giving you much-needed information, and handling the dirty details of negotiating contracts, freeing you to do what you're good at, writing.
- Notice, however, the emphasis on good agent, and there's the rub. A good agent charges a flat percentage of your earnings, usually 15%. Good agents are also busy people. They're not writing coaches, cheerleaders, or magicians. They probably can't sell a first-novel for six-digit sums, they can't magically sell a flawed novel, and they can't guarantee you a successful career free from setbacks. If they could, they'd charge more. They can offer suggestions, help you find the markets most likely to publish your work, and occasionally put a bit of pressure on the contracts department to squeeze better terms than you're likely to get on your own. The biggest problem with agents is that not all of them are good. There are wolves out there folks. They'll promise you the moon, and leave you with an empty wallet and broken dreams. Be very careful before you starting signing paperwork. It's hard for a beginning author to get accepted by one of the good agents -- with no track record they have no assurance they'll be able to sell your work, and even if they do, their cut of your first few books isn't likely to amount to much. You're probably better off waiting until you have an offer from a publisher on your first book, then contacting agents to negotiate that contract. Like a marriage, a good agent can be the best decision of your career, and a bad one can be the worst. And changing agents has many of the same emotional and financial drawbacks of a divorce.
- Are there any "tricks" to writing a novel?
Here are some tips I've written to other aspiring authors. Maybe they'll be helpful to you as well:
- I believe firmly that one of the biggest secrets of being a good writer is reading a lot. If I'm burnt out, a good book can really help. When I was first starting to write, quite often I'd look at my favorite authors to see how they handled things like conversations, scene transitions, and travel. But the thing that reading helps most with is story flow. There's a real rhythm to a good book. Like music, a story has a steady beat with crescendos and decrescendos -- and rests. Reading helped me get a feel for what kinds of rhythms I can use.
- Writing just takes practice and a clear idea of what tone you want your books to take. I happen to like people who are smart mouthed, tough, and upbeat. I learned a long time ago that you can't write and be critical at the same time -- uses a different part of your brain. So when you write, turn off the critic. Wait a few days and then read what you've written with a more critical eye. If you can't change it to read the way you'd like it to -- find one of your favorite authors and figure out how they handle what you're trying to do. Pay attention to viewpoint, logic, and voice (is this something my character would say?). If it still doesn't work, set it aside for some other day and try writing a different story. That's what I do (grin).
- What software do you use?
- I use an old version of Word Perfect (v10). The reveal codes feature allows me to figure what I just did that caused the remainder of the chapter to go wonky. It's got a million more features than I need, but putting text on a page is pretty straightforward, which is all I need to do.
- How useful are writer's groups, workshops and conventions?
- Like everything else, it depends. What do you want from them? What do you need? A writer's life can be a lonely one. Worse, authors tend to work in an information vacuum. In our daily lives, we don't hear much about the news, gossip and problems of the publishing world. We often bump into problems with our writing, and have no idea how to fix them. Your mundane friends probably think you're irresponsible for daring to write books instead of taking a respectable job with a dependable paycheck. Even if they support you, they probably can't tell you why a first-person viewpoint interferes with describing the protagonist. While I lived in Eugene, I was a member of the Wordos writer's group. I'd already published several books at the time, but I learned to write there. A good writer's group/workshop provides honest feedback from people who read the type of material you're writing. Honest feedback sometimes requires a thick skin to accept.
- The problem with writing, particularly early in your career, is that you have a lot to learn (writing is, after all, a craft), and a tender ego. That ego is not a liability, it's the heart of creativity. If you don't believe you can write as well as big-name-author X, you'll never be able to sit in front of the computer long enough to master your craft. A perfect writer's group captures a balance between bolstering your confidence, and pointing out areas that need improvement, ideally giving you some pointers on how to improve. To either side of perfect are decent groups, and beyond those are toxic groups which either stroke your ego without allowing you to improve, or crush your ego with withering criticism. Avoid these like the plague.
- Conventions often have great panels, but the real joy of conventions is sitting down and talking to other authors, people who understand the challenges and frustrations you face. Who can share the latest gossip about the industry, and maybe give you insight into whether or not the time is right to pitch your "moose in space" novel to your favorite publisher.
- Why are there differences between the sample chapters posted on your site and the actual books?
- The sample chapters are the last edits I do on my computer, before I send the manuscript off to the publisher. There are at least three different editors who go through the chapter after that, and I go through it at least twice more prior to publication. In short, what I post on my website is basically a draft of the chapter as it will appear in print.
- How do you keep a story full of life, but tight and readable?
- Keeping a good flow in a story is an artform -- and I won't pretend I have it down pat. Most of it happens for me in the rewrites. The first draft of a novel is just trying to keep the plot moving forward, my characters in character and getting from the beginning to the end. Then I go back and fill in the blanks, add details and physical blocking. I move scenes around for the most impact. And I look for places that I have to slog through. If I don't like them, there's no way a reader is going to like them. Then I have to figure out what's wrong with that scene. Sometimes a scene feels slow because there isn't enough detail to hold your interest. I very seldom have too much detail -- but some writers do. A lot of writing is trial and error -- find out what works for you
- If you lose faith in a work, do you scrap it, or keep plugging away, ignoring your doubts?
- Experience has taught me that there is no mistake so great that it can't be corrected on rewrites. Sometimes the rewrites are
pretty deep, though. I usually try not to scrap anything, unless I have a better idea, until I have the whole book done and can
stand back and look at it as a whole. If I have real doubts, I pull in my husband (who luckily likes to read the kinds of books
I write, and is very forthright about telling me that something's wrong), or my trusted writer's group. For a fledgling writer --
keep going until it is done. Then go back to the troublesome part and ask yourself what it does to further the story -- is it a
story problem or a writing problem. Quite often in my first and second drafts I have scenes or sections that are important for the
story -- but the scene just doesn't work out. Sometimes it helps to add to the scene or change viewpoint. Experience really helps
to tell good ideas from bad -- and there's only one way to get experience.
Writing a first draft is really being willing to make a hundred decisions in an hour that you'll have to live with for the duration of a story (be it short or long). At that point I don't worry about "good" or "bad" decisions. I just make 'em as they come. Rewriting is actually my favorite part. That's when characters come to life, and the story begins to flow smoothly. That's when you step back and evaluate a bit.