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About Writing Right: The Blog


The other day, I stumbled across a forum writer who wanted to know how to tell when his book is good enough to submit to an agent or a publisher. Despite some solid, thoughtful responses, he received a lot of misinformation. Here's how I handled the situation.

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You have received some pretty good responses here, except for the nonsense the Queen of Wrong sent you. The truth is you can revise the heck out of your book, have it edited and critiqued, and revise it some more. That still doesn't mean it's as "ready as it's ever going to be" for publication. No. Sometimes waiting a few days, weeks, or months between editing sessions can help you approach your work with a fresh set of eyes and turn it from a turn-down into an acceptance.


Also, if you hire an editor or critic and happen to hire the wrong ones (much easier to do than finding the right ones, sadly), they'll be absolutely no help to you at all and may actually harm you in your quest for publication. Surprise, surprise.


And, sending out queries is not the only way to find out if your book is ready for the "Show." In fact, it's the poorest and least reliable way. Editors and agents often turn down books that are, in fact, fully "ready" but simply not to their liking or not something the recipients believe is marketable. They may also feel the book is too short or too long or written in a genre or even a point-of-view that the publishers/agents aren't looking to acquire. If you submit your book for publication, assuming the proof is in the pudding, you're likely to be discouraged for all the wrong reasons. Read More 

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Someone asked online the other day about whether or not a beginning author needs copyright insurance for any sort of liability. He received some ridiculous and potentially harmful answers. Hopefully, my response set him straight.

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There have been some horrible answers here. Possibly because the phrase "copyright insurance" is meaningless in English. There is no insurance for copyright of which I'm aware because it's unnecessary. If, however, you're asking about author's liability insurance against copyright-infringement actions, then I get it. No one else did, including the respondent who advised you that you won't need liability insurance as long as you write fiction or tell the truth in your nonfiction writing. That respondent is way off base. Here's why.


Anyone can sue anyone else for virtually anything in the United States. Whether or not that plaintiff's action will prevail in a court of law is another matter. So, with that understood, it all boils down to a question of likelihood. Just as with any type of insurance coverage, you have to ask yourself about the chances of your needing it before buying it. As a writer, in other words, you won't actually need liability insurance until you actually need liability insurance. Read More 

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That's not exactly a unique feeling in the literary world today, particularly when it comes to newbie authors. One such writer wrote me recently, saying he'd sent his book out to tons of agents without any positive results. Here's what our exchange looked like.

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Okay, here's what I think. First, if you sent your manuscript to 500 agents as you say, you sent to roughly half of all literary agents currently working in the United States and not three-quarters, as someone misinformed you. Still, that's a lot. That means you shot-gunned them. Instead of looking at each agent's requirements for genres, submissions procedures, and the like, you mass-mailed them. That's going to get you a lot of rejections from the start because agents can smell a mass-mailing from a mile away.


Second, if even ten percent of those agents didn't mind or didn't catch on to your mass-mailing technique and still turned you down, your product isn't any good. By that, I mean your book isn't marketable. At least, it's not to those agents.


Third, you say your "beta readers" love your book. But, in the real world, beta readers amount to zilch when it comes to an objective and realistic appraisal of a property's worth in a publisher's eyes. Most beta readers I've seen are in it for the free reads or the thrill of having a title. (You know, Beta Reader First Class.) While there may be a few exceptions, you're not likely to find worthwhile voluntary readers for your project, and even if you did, no beta reader is familiar with all literary agents' "wish lists" and requirements. In the end, that means you may find someone who knows what he likes, but you're unlikely to find anyone who knows what the marketplace will like or what changes you need to make to the book to make it marketable (i.e., publishable). Read More 

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Someone asked this on a forum the other day, and the responses were horrible. Here's what I had to say.

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Well, considering the source, the first answer you received is predictably dead wrong. Not even close. I suggest you make a point of ignoring such responses from people who are only guessing at what they believe to be correct or possibly have an even more insidious reason for making snap judgments and responding with false answers or, just as bad, those that don't come close to responding to what you asked.


To answer the question you did ask and not something about which some respondents totally missed the mark. My response to How can a beginning writer learn from rejection if the editor doesn't provide constructive criticism is simple: He can't. But you can. At least, you can learn something from a stock rejection slip, and that's this: Your book may not be ready for publication. At least, it may not be by that publisher. How can you tell for sure? You're going to have to put on your Big Boy Editor's Hat and see for yourself where your book misses the mark. Either that or hire someone more knowledgeable than you to do the job. Read More 

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I was thinking back to when I started writing at the ripe old age of fourteen. Back to when words flowed from my cranium like teeth from a drunkard's mouth. Every thing I wrote down was agonizingly painful. By the time I finished whatever tome upon which I'd been working, I was exhausted. And I could only hope my work was long enough to qualify as a novel.


Often, it wasn't.


So, what do you do if you complete your Great American What's-It and find it's only 39,000 words long? Is that long enough to qualify? Before sitting back on your laurels, think about a story my agent once told me about a fledgling writer who once submitted a 45,000-word manuscript to a conventional publisher. The editor sent it back with the note, "This isn't a novel; it's a pamphlet."


Ouch! Painful. Especially since a little bit of inquiring would have prevented that.


If you find yourself in a similar situation, the question becomes, What am I going to do about it? You can't submit your work to a conventional publisher as a novel, and few publishers these days publish novellas, a label that's more in keeping with your work's length. I'm guessing you had your heart set on becoming a published "novelist," anyway, which is difficult to pull off without a novel under your belt.


True, you can publish it yourself and label it anything you want, but you won't be fooling anyone, and you certainly won't be setting yourself up as a successful novelist. So, my guess is that you wouldn't mind expanding the book to sixty or seventy thousand words or more so you can submit it for conventional publication. Am I right?


My next guess is that you don't have a clue as to how to go about doing that since you already poured everything you have into your story—beginning, middle, and end—and don't have much left in the tank. Right again? Read More 

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Someone asked me on Quora the other day where he could self-publish a book with an agent. He received a number of inappropiate replies. Here's what I told him.

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Well, welcome to the world of ridiculous answers. I see you don't specify whether your book is fiction or nonfiction, print or eBook, but that didn't stop one perennially notorious misleading respondent from advising you that your "novel" isn't long enough to be publishable, which in itself is inaccurate advice. If you're self-publishing either fiction or nonfiction, there are no rules on length. Nor are there any hard-and-fast dicta on sales and pricing of self-published books.


If you're serious about self-publishing, you should know that not only don't you need an agent but also you won't find an agent willing to take you on as a client. So, you're right on track there! Read More 

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People often ask me how I get past writer's block. Usually, I tell them that writer's block is nothing more than a writer's unwillingness to write.


That's what I said: unwillingness.


Oh, sure, I know. You want to write, you're eager to begin, you're desperate to create, but "writer's block" jumps up to stand squarely in the way of you and your creativity.


Bull cookies! Let me explain.


When I was a kid of fourteen, the glamor and allure of becoming a writer were overpowering. I had to write. Often, that meant staying up all night, when everyone else in the household was fast asleep. Writer's block? It was a killer. At times, I'd sit, trying to think of things to say, for hours and still come up empty. Or, I'd throw some rough ideas down on a piece of paper and go back to read them the next day. And, I'd crumple it up and throw it in the trash.


Writer's block existed for me, and I'm a testimonial to its very reality.


As I grew older, I took a position as an assistant editor at a national magazine based out of the Windy City. And, I answered a call for a stringer for a suburban Chicago newspaper chain, working evenings covering school-board and town council meetings. Really exciting, creative stuff. Read More 

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When someone you know asks you to review a copy of her new book, and it's awful, what do you do?


Here's what I did when a writer/friend of some years asked me to review a copy of her new book, which was scheduled for POD release a couple months later. Despite the fact that this author had already written and published several psychic romances, including one with a conventional publisher, I soon realized the new book was in trouble. So, I picked out the strong points, built them into a review, and then, in an aside to the author, pointed out some serious typos, grammatical errors, and punctuation problems so that she might review and consider revising them before releasing the book to the public.


I never heard from her again.


Obviously, some people can take creative criticism, and some can't. I assumed I was giving her the best of two worlds—a review she could publish to her benefit and tips on preparing the book for release if she chose to consider them. She apparently didn't see things that way. Read More 

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I saw someone ask a question online the other day. It went something like this: "How to Write an Article When You don't Know Anything about It." Here's how I responded.

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Research. Next ridiculous question, please.


I mean, are you kidding? Is this a fake question? Are you getting paid to ask the most ludicrous things you can possibly think of? Did someone put you up to this?


No writer knows everything about the subject he sets out to immortalize. Many writers know nothing. That's what "hitting the books" is all about. In the good old days B.C. (Before Connectivity), if I got an assignment about which I knew little or nothing, I'd have to schlep myself down to the local library, work the card catalog until I was blue in the face, find some reference books or tapes, locate the contact information for some experts in the field, make a few dozen phone calls, conduct an interview or two, and hope everything came out well in the end. Read More 

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Let's begin with an assumption: You contact a restaurant owner about writing a review about his restaurant for publication. And, let's also say that you're on a, umm, "tight" budget. When you get to the restaurant, the owner volunteers to "comp" you a meal featuring some of their signature entrees. You're delighted.


Question: Is that ethical?


Here's my take on the subject after more than half a century of writing reviews on everything from restaurants to luxury resorts. If a restaurant owner (or anyone) pays you in the form of a free meal to write a review about them and you accept the gratuity, you can't in good conscience write a review for publication without revealing that fact to a publisher. To do otherwise would constitute at least the appearance of pay-to-play. And, you simply can't do that in the world of "journalistic integrity."


Now, if you want to run your review past the New York Times or The Washington Post, I wouldn't worry too much about journalistic integrity. The editors there haven't heeded that concept for decades. And I speak from experience as a former columnist for The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, and many others for years. But that was eons ago when a publication's integrity and impartiality were paramount. Today, they're little more than tantamount—to sales. Everything else, it seems, takes a back seat. Read More 

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