On Writing and Publishing
Q. Is it worth being a member of a writer’s group? Is outside feedback helpful?
A. A few years into my writing career, I got to know what worked and what didn’t, where I needed to make corrections, and how to construct a story that remained compelling for 400 pages. Eventually, I got to the point where I edited in my head as I wrote; I discovered I had an inner voice that, once I learned to listen to it, told me to stop and fix what I was writing at that moment—resulting in much cleaner first drafts. But these are the skills that develop in any craftsman who spends years perfecting his work. It was not always that way for me.
To get there, early in my career, I assembled a core group of carefully chosen readers. Most were people who regularly read my genre, but some enjoyed a variety of literature. One was an unpublished writer whose focus was spec screenplays. In addition to my own readers, however, I had an agent who possessed a keen editing eye. She also employed her own group of readers who reviewed (or “covered”) my manuscripts prior to submission. As a result, I got a solid cross section of opinions as to what worked—and what didn’t. This approach is obviously different from a group composed of aspiring writers, but it did provide outside feedback from a cross section of the population not unlike those who would be buying my books.
Of course, despite these efforts—writer’s groups or independent readers or both—there’s no assurance that an editor at a publishing house 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.
My general rule of thumb was that if one person in my group had an issue with something in the manuscript, I considered their point—but viewed it as an opinion; the observation could be personal preference or bias. However, if two or three had the same comment…well, that meant I needed to take a careful look and consider making changes.
That said, the key to the effectiveness of this strategy is having the right people in your writing group. Do they write in the same genre? Are they skilled in the craft? This cannot be overemphasized. Getting multiple opinions from people who don’t know the nuances of your specific genre (or the tenets of good writing) will leave you more confused and cause you to rewrite sections that should have been left alone. The adage of “too many cooks spoil the stew” needs a tweak here: too many individuals offering incorrect criticism could leave you in the middle of an ocean without a compass. You literally won’t know which direction to go in. It can hamstring you—or worse, it can leave you with a manuscript no publisher is interested in publishing.
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 the first draft of 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. Many of us have time we can save during a day. The more minutes you shave from unimportant activities, the more 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. All smartphones have the ability to record audio notes—dictate your thoughts as they come to you. Or, if you prefer the analog method, 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.
Takeaway: if you want to accomplish something, you have to find a way! Start it so you can finish it.
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. My first agent used to say that even at the point you feel it’s ready to be sent out, it’s probably only 50-75% of the way there.
Do your homework. As discussed in last issue’s Writer’s Toolkit article, research the agents to determine which ones handle the type of novel you’re writing.
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 like Amazon’s CreateSpace division. Many established authors have done this either willingly or because the declining economics of the 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, and you haven’t had success getting an agent (or your agent is unable to get you a deal), the answer is probably 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. But there are dangers of going it alone.
If you’re unable or unwilling to do this, and the goal is as stated, do not self-publish because you guide and control your own destiny. Very little will happen unless you do it or set it in motion. If this is not your forte—or if you don’t have the time or money to devote to it, or if things don’t go as planned—your sales will be poor. Publishers have access to some of this sales data—meaning you can’t hide or erase your sales history. Should you want to get a traditional publishing contract at a later date, a poor sales history will make it a more difficult task.
It is my understanding that even the sales history of self-published printed books gets recorded at point of sale by 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 major league baseball record books…it won’t note that marketing or publicity 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…etc.
If you realize what you’re getting into and what’s involved, self-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—though, 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 successfully promote the novel’s big concept, even if the writing was wooden or sophomoric), but the bottom line is that if you intend to self-publish, I highly recommend hiring a respected professional editor and copyeditor to make your novel the best it can be. Hiring a publicist may also be a wise choice to help generate effective buzz.
Q. Are there specific guidelines I have to follow when submitting a manuscript to an agent or editor?
A. When you submit a printed manuscript, 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. Put your 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 waterproof, and editors/agents tend to read while eating, drinking, etc. Drinks spill, blurring your carefully chosen words.
Your manuscript should not be bound in any manner. Do not punch holes and insert into a binder. I used card stock boxes, which hold a ream of pages, give or take, or large manila expanding folders. Bottom line: professional appearance. If you remember that, you’re on the right track.
It used to be that agents did not accept emailed manuscripts. However, with the advent of the iPad, Surface, generic tablets, and dedicated e-readers like the Kindle (which can read Word documents), things have changed. If you consult a current reference book on literary agents, it will note the agents’ preferred methods of submission. Another option is to call an agent’s office and ask if they accept emailed submissions. One size does not fit all, so don’t make assumptions—be informed. Better than asking agents to adapt to what you send them, you should adapt to their preferences.
If submitting electronically, and you have embedded comments or tracked changes in your document, be sure to remove them completely before sending off your manuscript. These can appear hidden, depending upon the settings you’ve chosen in Word—but visible to the recipient if his or her software is configured differently from yours.
What about sending a PDF? They have the advantage of preserving any formatting that you have in your document, but in my experience, agents and editors do not like PDFs because they are a less flexible file format than Word. Since they are essentially locked down page images, the Kindle interface cannot convert them to a format that can be manipulated.
DISCLAIMER: Any “advice” or information provided on this website is based on the author’s experience and knowledge, and is intended only as background and for purposes of general interest. It is NOT LEGAL ADVICE, and could be incorrect. If you have questions about this information, how it applies to your particular situation, or anything else of a legal nature, CONSULT AN ATTORNEY.