On Writing and Publishing
Q. Is it worth being a member of a writer’s group? What do you think of outside feedback, and when should I get it?
A. I don’t belong to a writer’s group, but I have a core group of carefully chosen readers. Most are people who regularly read the genre that I write in, while some of them read a variety of literature. In addition to my own readers, my agent reads my manuscripts, and she has her own group of readers that review it prior to submission. I feel that among all these readers, I get a solid cross section of opinion as to what may be right–and wrong–with the manuscript. Of course, the fact of the business is that despite these steps–writer’s groups or independent readers-there’s no assurance that a particular editor is going to like your manuscript or agree with the opinions of your readers. I still believe, however, that the critique process can be valuable and worthwhile.
Q. What if you work full-time and don’t have time to write a novel? What do you do?
A. Simply stated, if you never start it, you’ll never finish it. If you write a page a day, you’ll have a novel written in a year. Write two pages a day and it’ll be done in six months. Be very protective of your time. We all have time we can save during a day. The more time you shave from unimportant activities, the more time you’ll have to devote to writing. Whether driving in a car, waiting in line at the market, or sitting on hold on the phone, try to be thinking about your plot or characters. Take notes. A lot of smartphones have the ability to record audio notes–record your thoughts as they come to you. Or, carry a small notepad with you and jot your ideas down on paper. That way, when you do have time to sit down and write, you’re ready to go.
Bottom line: if you want to accomplish something, you have to find a way!
Q. What advice do you have for writers who have had a hard time getting published?
A. Work hard. Don’t give up. If you believe in yourself and in your abilities, then you owe it to yourself to do everything possible to get your work noticed. That said, there are certain things you need to do. First, write the best novel you can. Work on it and polish it and don’t submit it to an agent until you’re sure it’s the best it can possibly be. Keep in mind that even at the point you feel it’s ready to be sent out, it’s probably only 70% of the way there.
Do your homework. As stated earlier in the “Agents” portion of this page, research the agents to determine which ones handle the type of novel you’re writing.
Addendum: much has changed in the years since I initially composed this answer. Nowadays, if you don’t want to wait out (or endure) the agent search, an entirely viable alternative is self-publishing through one of the book retailers (Kindle and Nook, for example, have easy to use publishing capabilities) and/or releasing a bound edition through a print-on-demand company. Many established authors have done this either willingly or because the declining economics of the failing (traditional) publishing industry has forced their hand.
Q. Is self-publishing worthwhile?
A. It depends on what you want to accomplish; if your goal is to see your work in print, the answer is yes. If it’s to sell enough copies to get the attention of the New York publishers, the answer again is yes–with conditions: you must be prepared to market the book with the savvy and resources necessary to give it every chance of succeeding. If you’re unable or unwilling to do this, and the goal is as stated, do not self-publish. It is my understanding that if you self-publish a book, the sales history still gets recorded via the ISBN and tracked via Bookscan, a Nielsen ratings company (yes, the same company that has facilitated the cancellation of many of our favorite television shows during the past few decades). A poor sales history does not carry an asterisk like the major league baseball record books…it won’t note that the marketing did not perform, or that you didn’t set up your account properly with the distributor, or that you didn’t get good placement in bookstores…etcetera.
Publishing via digital platforms is now a viable means of getting your work into the public’s hands. The stigma of self-publishing still exists–there’s a lot of subpar work out there because, theoretically, you don’t have a skilled editor filtering out the “bad stuff,” but honestly, I’ve read some awful novels published by the major New York houses. There are reasons for this (e.g., marketing decisions–the publisher felt they could make money because they could successfully promote the novel’s “big concept” even if the writing stunk) but the bottom line is that you intend to self-publish, I highly recommend hiring a professional editor and copyeditor to make your novel the best it can be and to avoid the “self-publishing stigma.”
Q. Are there specific guidelines I have to follow when submitting a manuscript to an agent or editor?
A. Yes. Generally, when you submit a fiction novel, it should be on standard white 8.5 X 11″ paper. There should be one inch margins all around, and it should be typeset in a standard font, such as 12 point Courier or Times New Roman. I always used to put my name, the manuscript’s title, and the page number in a header at the top of each page.
The manuscript should be double-spaced and printed cleanly. If you have access to a laser printer, even better. Inkjet inks are not generally waterproof, and editors/agents tend to read while eating, drinking, etc. Drinks spill, blurring your carefully chosen words. Enough said…
Your manuscript should not be bound in any manner. Do not punch holes and insert into a binder. In the past, I’ve used small card stock boxes, which hold anywhere from 450 to 500+ pages and large manila folders. Bottom line: professional appearance. If you remember that, you’re on the right track.
Once caveat: it used to be that agents did not accept emailed manuscripts. However, with the advent of the iPad and other tablet and e-readers that can read Word documents, this may have changed. If you consult a reference book on literary agents, unless it’s been recently updated or recently published, it might not be current with the present technological state of the industry. Another option is to call the agent’s office and ask if they take electronic submissions for reading on an iPad or equivalent device.