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About Writing Right: The Blog


Someone new to writing asked on Quora the other day what the rules are for using mythology in fantasy fiction. Here's what I told him.

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Good question. When it comes to writing fantasy and using mythology within your novel, you need to pay attention to the three Cardinal Rules of Inclusion. They are, in strict numerological order:1. Write correctly (grammatically); 2.Write effectively (phrasiologically); 3.Create the best damned, riveting, can't-put-it-down book you can possibly write (storyologically).


That's it. Also sometimes known familiarly as The Holy Trinity, those are the only rules you have to follow in writing fantasy while employing mythology as a literary tool. Wait a minute! On second thought, those are the only rules you have to follow in writing any fiction—period!


See, fiction is fiction because it's not nonfiction, poetry, or an aardvark. It's made up. It may be based upon a true story or true incidents, but it's still primarily manufactured in the writer's mind. That's what makes it so enjoyable. Both to write and to read. If it had a bunch of stodgy old rules bloating it, it would no longer belong to the writer but, rather, to a board of semi-retired, semi-cognizant rule-making academicians sitting around a big walnut table somewhere, deciding on what the writer can and can't do. If that were the case, we would never have been blessed with one thousandth of the great works of art that have graced our tables over the eons. Read More 

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Someone asked a complex question online the other day: A character in my book loses his eye. Can he regain the eye or should I just keep the eye lost? Interesting. Here's how I responded.

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I can answer this question for you—absolutely and without a doubt. Here's my suggestion:


Quit writing. Go into politics or get a plumbing apprenticeship or become a veterinarian or sell cat litter in a pet shop. I'm dead serious here. I've been writing for half a century and have 250 conventionally published books, both fiction and nonfiction, and tens of thousands of published shorter pieces to my credit. I've taught Creative Writing Workshop at the college level in Chicago and elsewhere. And I've worked as a professional book, newspaper, and magazine editor and run my own Websites for decades. My point is, I know what I'm talking about. And what I'm talking about is this:


Anyone who is floundering to the point of not knowing a basic premise of the novel he or she proposes to write and must instead ask a group of total strangers for advice is nowhere near ready to write a book. Period. Read More 

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Someone asked an interesting question online recently. It was "What's the best way to learn to write a book?" The author implied that he has several books he'd like to write but doesn't know how to go about doing it. My response to him may surprise you.

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The best way to learn to write a book? How about the only way! If that's what you and twenty million other Americans want to know, I have the answer. I also know you won't like it.


Hire a mentor.


And no! I don't mean just anyone. I mean someone with a proven record of his or her own conventionally published books plus articles, blogs, and short stories. And someone with a history of teaching fiction writing or journalism or nonfiction writing or whatever area you're interested in pursuing.


That leaves in the dust about 98 percent of all writers advertising their skills and availability to mentor up-and-coming young writers. If they advertise for clients, they're not for you. If you stumble across them and they don't have dozens, if not hundreds, of their own conventionally published books and thousands of short pieces to their credit (verifiably—no taking their word for it), forget them. Read More 

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Have you ever wondered if, after stumbling upon a really unique and dynamite idea for a screenplay, you could actually pitch it to Hollywood? If so, join the 50 million other writers who were wondering the very same thing. Here's the simple answer: Yes, you can. That is, you can pitch it, but you can't sell it.


Huh? you say. Why is that?


Here's the distinction. You can pitch an unfinished screenplay but can't expect to sell it because you're an unknown talent with an unseen commodity from a writer with a nebulous history. Can you guarantee a producer or director that you can meet deadlines? Deliver on your promises? Sustain a script from opening setting to final scene? Work with other writers to refine your script as called for? Of course not—not by a long shot. Not if you worked from now until doomsday to do so. And I know that to be true because you never would have considered the possibility if it weren't.


In addition to that, you don't know anyone in Hollywood, meaning no one has had any experience working with you; so, no one can attest to your talent, character, morals, and work ethics. Nor can they know how pliable (translation: cooperative) you are to work with. Read More 

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Somebody wrote in the other day, asking which is easier to adapt to film--a novel or a screenplay--and why. Here's what I told him.

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Hmm. Methinks thou art a trifle confused. Asking that is a little like asking which is the tastier fruit, an orange or a shoe. There is no comparison because a screenplay is the film in written form. It's the directions for every character, setting, and scene within the film. I suspect the confusion arises from your using "screenplay" when you meant to ask which is easier to adapt, a novel or a stage play (which is the written form of a theatrical or stage production).


While neither is a breeze to adapt to film due to film's unique reliance on camera placement, evolving scenes, lighting, special effects, etc., I think I would prefer adapting a stage play to film due to the fact that the stage play has already blocked out the dialogue, scenes, flow, and other elements necessary for a visual presentation—that is, a performance. In so doing, it has eliminated all non-visual aspects of the presentation commonly contained in a novel. Read More 

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Someone expressed concern about the possibility of including fictional work within a nonfiction book. Is that possible? Here's how I replied.

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Absolutely a nonfiction book can have a fictional story within it. Especially when used to illustrate a point or shed light on a specific topic, ethnic group, or culture, fictional tales shared throughout history can be potent teaching mechanisms. Even though these fictional stories are part of the larger work, the book still remains nonfiction, or a factual work, because the main body of the work is nonfiction.


For instance, in a recently published book on Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of a major Indian tribe in modern history, I used Cherokee and other tribal tales to enrich an understanding of the complex cultures of Native Americans. Within the book, (following each nonfiction chapter), I interwove various indigenous tales, such as The Mother and the Corn, The Long Way Back, The Cherokee and the Women, The Ending of War, The Lost Cherokee, The Race Between the Crane and the Hummingbird, Two Wolves, and The Coyote and DeathRead More 

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Someone asked the other day what I thought a good writer would charge to ghost an article for him. I had to think about that for a while, even though I've been ghosting for others for years. Here's what I finally came up with.

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What you'll need to pay to hire a quality writer to ghost an article for you depends upon a number of factors, of course. Among the things I need to know before accepting an assignment are these:

  1. The complexity of the article's subject matter. Is it a piece on the health advantages of owning and caring for pets, or is it an explanation of the Theory of Relativity? That makes a huge difference because that will determine how much research I'll have to invest before ever setting pen to paper. For me, as for most other folks, time is money.
  2. My familiarity with and appreciation of the subject. If it has something to do with writing, publishing, or English grammar, I'll take it. I'll even give you a cut rate. If, on the other hand, it's a look at why sexual identity is no longer strictly a binary consideration, I'll take it, too. But I'll have to double my rate.
  3. The deadline. If I have a long lead time, I can charge somewhat less because I'll be working on other projects in between. If you're on a tight deadline, though, that's another matter, and I'll have to take that into consideration when setting a price. Read More 
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I stumbled across a forum question online the other day, and it went something like this: Before an author reaches out to publishers and agents, what should they do? Well, of course, I couldn't resist. Here's how I responded:

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Wow. You and your solo respondent (so far) share the same impediment. Before an author reaches out to publishers and agents, they need to improve their grammar. Get it? If not, read it again, because both of you failed a basic literacy test called English Grammar 101. Here's why that matters.


No matter what else you provide along with your approach to publishers and agents, a misuse of the English language will land you in the trash can before you can even ask, "Did you receive my query on …" Remember: Nothing turns off a publisher, editor, literary agent, or anyone else in the field of publishing faster than poor grammar.


Now, assuming you went scurrying to your latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk, discovered your mistake, and corrected it, you'll still need to do a couple other things prior to contact. Here they are: Read More 

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An author asked my opinion the other day about how long he should wait for his agent to sell his book before pulling it away from her and publishing it himself. Here's what I replied.

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This one is easy:


I'm semi-serious about this. If you've been fortunate enough (more like "blessed") to land a legitimate, hard-working literary agent who took on the work of a first-time author (whom you seem to be), you'd be crazy to dump that agent simply because you can get your book into print sooner yourself. If that's all you wanted, I doubt you would have taken the time and effort to find a literary agent willing to take on an untested author in the first place. Besides, self-publishing is not only a quick way to publish your book but also a sure-fire way to get you branded a "loser" within the publishing industry.

Also, self-publishing is a great way to spin your wheels and end up with very little to show for your time and effort. Most self-published books earn their authors less than $100 in their lifetimes. Far less!


Now, if you have a questionable agent—one you're not sure is actually working at selling your book at all—my question to you is why? Why didn't you check out the agent before signing on the dotted line? Asked for a list of some of her clients for you to contact? See what books she's sold for those clients? To what publishing houses? Every agent worth her salt should be willing to provide answers to questions such as those. If yours can't, it's safe to say you don't have a legitimate agent, and you need to get free of her ASAP. Read More 

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People often ask me how much a professional book editor costs. The answer is simple: I don't know. Or, more precisely, I can't say. Numerous variables go into book editing, and no two editors are alike or think, work, or charge the same. So, after thinking this one through for a while, here's what I've come up with.


Unfortunately, there's no pat answer to what hiring a professional book editor will cost. What an editor charges to edit a book-length manuscript depends upon several factors, including what type of editing you want done. Is it simple copy editing or more complicated line editing? Is it complete structural editing or is it complex substantive editing?


Knowing that most inexperienced authors aren't sure what types of editing they require—and knowing from experience that virtually all of their works could benefit from a combination of all four edits plus proofreading at the end of the process—I'll presume the question is how much does a comprehensive edit cost. Knowing from experience that one newbie author's work is very similar in its literary shortcomings to another, I'll focus my answer on an editor who can do it all. Here, then, is the bottom line of what you can expect to pay, based upon an editor's qualifications: Read More 

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I heard from a new author at a writer's forum the other day. He wanted to know how often I edit my writing. This one was like shooting ducks in a barrel, although I'm sure it wasn't the answer he had anticipated:

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Good question. Weird answer. Are you ready for it? Sitting down? Seat belts fastened? Wait for it … wait for it …


I edit my work continuously. By that I mean I write a certain amount—maybe a few thousand words or maybe a few hundred. Then, I go back to check out what I've written and make whatever obvious corrections/improvements are necessary. I continue that way until I'm finished creating for that writing session, at which point I go back to the beginning of that day's work and read through it, start to finish, editing again as I go.


When I've finished that, I take a break. This is a very important step in writing as well as editing. The human brain can assimilate only so much at a time. By taking a break from the work, I'm actually resetting my brain's attention span back to 100 percent availability.


How long of a break do I suggest? That varies. New writers or inexperienced scribes should probably take anywhere from a day or two to a week before returning to the scene of their crimes. Experienced writers can do so a lot sooner. I have trained myself so that, once I walk away from something I've written, I can be refreshed and ready to go again in as little time as it takes to get up and grab a cup of coffee. Seriously. Read More 

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If someone came up to you and asked why literary voice seems more important for narrators in fiction than in nonfiction, how would you respond? Could you respond? I can, and I recently did. Here's what I said.

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You know, I had to think about how to answer this one for a couple of days. Why? First, because your use of the word "seems" implies that this is your personal observation and not empirical fact, which of course is true. Second, if voice does actually seem more important for narrators in novels than in other literary forms—not only to you but to everyone—that tells me there are a lot of poor writers in this world. And I know that to be true from my own observations.




I say this because good writers—great writers—don't turn their literary voices off and on at will. Great writers have only one literary voice, and it's strong, consistent, and commanding. It draws the reader in and ensnares him. It mesmerizes and delights. It fascinates and enlightens. So, why shouldn't a writer use that same strong voice in all forms of writing, from memoir to history, romance to literary, biography to self-help? In fact, in whatever he writes?

Answers? Anybody? Anybody?  Read More 

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Someone wrote in to ask the other day what at first seemed a simple question. It was more complex in the end, though. Here's what I said to "Is choosing a publisher such as Amazon Prime Publishing worth it for an author or not?" Here's my response:

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First, Amazon Prime Publishing is not a publishing house in the traditional sense of the phrase. It neither publishes nor promotes books the way a conventional house does. Nor does it place your book with an independent or chain bookstore. Instead, you (the author) are the publisher pulling the strings normally reserved to a conventional publisher. Amazon (and all self-publishing aggregators such as Lulu, Barnes & Noble, Ingram, and Draft 2 Digital) merely set up a system whereby you do all the pre-press work yourself, and then they act as printers to produce either a hard copy or a digital version of your book. That's something all printers and even many copy centers can do—at least theoretically.


Where publishing aggregators differ from conventional printers is in having a limited means of book distribution. Amazon peddles the books it produces for you right on their site. Ditto B&N and Lulu. Others join forces with various outlets to offer your book for sale to visitors to those outlets, such as Apple through its Apple store. Read More 

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A "new writer" asked online if it's better to hire a literary agent or work directly with publishers. Not an unreasonable question. This is what I said.

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Hmm. Methinks you don't understand the workings of the publishing industry, and you certainly don't understand the mechanics of literary agents. Here's the real low-down.


For starters, far more authors, writers, and wannabes exist than literary agents--possibly fiftty times more or greater. In real estate jargon, that puts literary agents in a seller's market. They hold all the keys and the power, and they know it. You can't walk into an agent's office (or email inbox) and announce that you'd like to hire him or her. Uh-uh. Just don't happen. Read More 

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Someone asked a question that's often asked and rarelu answered correctly.It was "Should an author hire an outside editor before sending a novel off to a publisher or agent?" This was my response.

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Okay, here's the deal. Maybe yes and maybe no, but probably.


Sound like a cop out? Here's what I mean. If you're a professionally trained editor as well as an author, and you're extremely good at doing both (as in the best there is), you don't need to hire an outside editor who, in his or her attempt to earn back the thousands of dollars he's charging, would likely make things worse and not better. I've seen that happen personally, not with outside editors but with in-house editors provided by a publisher as standard pre-publication procedure. In my more than 250 books and tens of thousands of short pieces conventionally published over the last five decades, I never used an outside editor.


Heresy, you say? Hardly. I'm not only a professionally trained book, magazine, and newspaper editor but also a perfectionist. I taught both writing and editing at the college level numerous times. I help other professional editors out of a jam when they're stumped on how to fix something. I'd be crazy to hire someone to review my own book simply because I can. Read More 

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Sitting around the ol' campfire the other night as the temperature hovered just north of zero, the inevitable question arose: Who wrote the first American crime novel? Having spent much of my life in hot pursuit of a response to just that very inquiry, I promptly perked up my ears and spilled out my brains.

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Now, this response isn't 100 percent guaranteed accurate, but all smoking guns seem to point to an author named Charles Brockden Brown for having written the first true American crime novel. Many literary historians consider his 1798 tome, Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, to be the primary, if not the most exemplary, suspect. According to the Website CrimeReads:


"The story is written in a quasi-epistolary form, mostly in letters from its titular hero to the sister of his murdered friend, Waldegrave."


The tale concerns a murderer, a murdered man, the murdered man's sister, and a friend of the deceased (our hero) determined to find and bring to justice the blaggard who did the dirty deed for the sister's peace of mind. The plot also involves a great deal of sleepwalking, both on behalf of the murderer and the sleuth on his tail. Sounds promising, doesn't it?

Hold on, though. Before you run out and search for a copy for your next winter's night read, here's an example from the book's very first chapter of what you can expect: Read More 

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A writer new to the world of book publishing asked me the other day if an agent does anything beyond finding a publisher for an author-client's book. Even I was surprisecd when I stopped to think about my answser. Here's what I said.

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You mean as if that weren't enough? Actually, a literary agent does quite a bit beyond matching her clients with appropriate publishers. An agent will advise her clients against accepting offers from publishers who are "suspect." That means publishers with a bad reputation or who have created bad experiences for at least some of the authors they sign on. You don't need those types of publishers in your corner. Believe me!


Also, an agent will negotiate with reputable, conventional publishers for various contractual rights and percentages. If a publisher initially offers a standard contract at a 12% royalty rate with a $3,000 advance and 25% of all subsidiary rights, a savvy agent may come back and get that boosted to 15% royalties with a $5,000 advance (or more) and 50% of all subsidiary rights. We're talking here about seasoned, ethical, professional agents, not those who shoot from the hip just to make a quick buck. A reputable agent has done her homework, seen what the publisher has offered to other writers, and knows the bargaining power she has. She also knows when and how to use it.

  Read More 

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Someone asked the other day what kinds of works literary agents handle--including poetry, screenplays, etc. The answer was obvious. To me. Here's what I told him.

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For openers, keep this in mind: Not all literary agents are alike. That's the first piece of news I'd like to leave you with. The second is that, of the six agents I've had in my life (three great and three barely human), all of them handled both fiction (novels) and nonfiction. In short, literary agents are sales people who specialize in selling book-length manuscripts to conventional, advance-paying publishing houses. Does that mean any and all book-length manuscripts? Well, not quite.


The exception is academic, university, and scientific tomes, which are a specialty unto themselves. Also, while some agents handle children's or Young Adult books, not all do. You would need to check out an agent's Website to tell for sure.


You see, adult trade book publishers are a specific targeted group. They publish books to the general trade (thus the name) and promote them both online, in brick-and-mortar bookstores, and through the publishers' own distribution network. With that said, it makes sense that agents have a targeted list of the names of trade-book editors and their publishers to whom they regularly pitch their wares. Give them something outside of that trade list, and they're lost. Understandably. Poetry publishers? Uh-uh. University presses" Sorry, no. Academic presses? No, thanks. Theatrical works? Are you kidding me? Screenplays? Get out of here! Read More 

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A question arose the other day as to how much "say" an author has in choosing the design elements and marketing opportunities for his or her book. Interesting question--one whose answer depends upon what your definition of the word "is" is. (Thank you very much, Bill Clinton, for your hours spent before the House impeachment investigating committee.)


Now, if we're talking about how much input an author has with a publisher, that depends. In my dealings with more than two dozen conventional, advance-paying publishers with whom I've worked over the years, an author has no input on marketing whatsoever above and beyond what he or she decides to do individually. But he does have some input on design and title. By "input" here, I mean just that. The author "puts in" his two cents' worth, and he hopes for the best. Nearly always, though, once a publisher considers that input, he will proceed with the initial suggestions of his in-house prognosticators (marketing, sales, and promotion folks). That sounds unfair, I know. After all, it is your book.


But, considering the fact that conventional publishers put up all the production costs and take all the risks in publishing your opus, you have to realistically assume they're going to follow the advice of their own professional staff and personnel who supposedly know what's best for the company. Best design, best title, best typesetting, best editing, best layout, and so forth. In this case, "best" translates to "greatest potential sales." (Read your publishing contract for specifics.) Read More 

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A writer asked online the other day how to tell if a book title is "available." Here's how I replied.

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Short answer: All book titles are "available". See how much time and trouble I just saved you?


Titles are not copyrightable. Even if you come up with a unique, fascinating, grabby, illuminating, witty, luscious, juicy title all your own, someone else can come along and copy it for his work tomorrow. Most conventional publishers frown on publishing books with the same title as books already on the market for obvious reasons. But doing so is neither unethical or illegal.


Oh, and as a general rule, create a title that will appeal to your intended audience, but don't spend too much time and energy on it. Unless you're self-publishing your book, your publisher will change your title anyway nine times out of ten. Publishers do marketing research to find a title they believe will sell the most copies of a book. They're not always right, of course, but they pay their marketing people a salary to do something with their time. Coming up with titles, then, becomes more of a science than the creative art most writers assume it is. Read More 

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