A mother recently asked on line what to do to encourage her daughter, a fine writer, to get published and paid for her work. I had a few thoughts on the matter, considering that I was in her daughter's shoes half a century earlier. Here's my response:
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First, since getting my first book published in the mid-seventies, I went on to publish nearly a hundred books conventionally in nearly all genres. I also wrote the second most widely syndicated newspaper column in America for more than a decade (after "Dear Abby"—hey, she was tough!) and published tens of thousands of articles, short stories, and other works in magazines, newspapers, and on Websites. I learned enough along the way to develop Creative Writing Workshop, which I taught at several Chicago-area colleges for years.
And, of course, I worked as a magazine, newspaper, and book editor just to fill in the "down" time.
So, I feel qualified in saying that, in one respect, your daughter is far better off than I was when I started out. She's good; I sucked.
With that said, please ignore, disregard, and banish from your mind forever the "advice" given to you by the Grand Vizier of Wrong. It's worse than her normal fare. In fact, it's the polar opposite of the truth. Here's why:
First, she writes "you are the second-worst possible person to judge the quality of [your daughter's] writing." Really? I could never have guessed. Thank God she figured it out.
Second, she says, "The worst is your daughter herself." Oh, my. I had no idea.
Of course, the G.V. is gifted with super-sensory perception and a mandate to predict the unknowable. For all she knows (or cares), you could be a research technician, a book reviewer, a teacher schooled in objectivity, a library technician, a writer, a fact-checker, or even a professional editor. Even if you're not, being your daughter's parent doesn't make you Public Enemy No. 2. Shame on the V.G. for saying so!
Ditto for your daughter being her own worst critic. Once again, does this "respondent" know your daughter's age, upbringing, schooling, professional training, and temperament?
No? No? You're kidding!
Actually, I didn't think so. In fact, in most ways, a parent and a writer-daughter are among the best equipped critics of a child's works, provided the two aren't blinded by prejudice, which would be rare in the real world. Most parents can spot extraordinary talent and extraordinary slop, and they won't hesitate to say so, if in somewhat couched terms. Very few parents want to blow rose-colored smoke up their children's butts.
Finally, the Grand Vizier's advice to sic on your daughter a professional editor "who will be hard on her, even to the point of driving her to anger or tears" is not only ludicrous but also cruel, vicious, and vindictive. It is, in fact, absolutely unforgivable. I don't need to ask where such advice came from; I've read as much of the respondent's published "work" as I could possibly tolerate, and it's obvious.
Now, try to understand something here. I've spent all this time downgrading a fellow respondent's shoot-from-the-lip answer to your very straight-forward and sincere question because it's crucial to your daughter's development that you recognize such ignorance and arrogance for what it is—and for how harmful it would be to your daughter if you heeded it.
With that warning, the question remains, what should you do to help advance your daughter's career? The answers are simple.
- Just what you're doing. Read her work and encourage her wherever called for while questioning any areas you think are weak or unclear.
- Advise her to send her shorter work to magazines that have a history of publishing similar genres—whether mystery, fantasy, sci/fi, romance, or whatever. You can find listings by running a search on the Internet or picking up a copy of Writer's Market at your local bookstore or library.
- Locate suitable conventional book publishers looking to publish genres in which your daughter writes. Note that the largest publishers don't accept unagented (also called unsolicited) submissions, although many smaller publishers do. With that said …
- Encourage your daughter to pitch her best work to various appropriate (or likely) literary agents who might be willing to pick her up and sign her to a contract, after which the agent will submit your daughter's work to those major book publishers that the agent feels are most likely to buy it.
- Suggest that your daughter join a professional writing association, such as the Author's Guild, to continue advancing her skills while learning more about her craft and the publishing industry in general.
- Last and definitely least, hire a qualified professional editor with a history of working well and being gentle with young authors. Preferably, someone willing to take the time to mentor her. A professional editor doesn't have to throw a fit to get a writer's attention, no matter the age. He does have to know psychology as well as writing inside and out and understand how to teach it. You can get recommendations for professional editors through online searches, various writing organizations, and other authors who praise their editors on their books' "Acknowledgements" pages. (Read a few pages of the books to make sure those editors did a good job!) Check out Amazon's invaluable "Look Inside" feature to find the Acknowledgements after locating books with genres similar to your daughter's.
Finally, one serious word of caution. The publishing-industry waters are filled with sharks circling their prey and waiting for the right moment to attack. Never pay a publisher anything for considering your daughter's work or for publishing it. A legitimate, conventional publisher bears all publishing costs and pays their authors for the privilege of producing the book.
Never pay an agent for anything having to do with representing a work. Agents exist on a fixed percentage of sales only after they're made—normally 15 percent for domestic book sales and 20 percent for foreign and subsidiary sales.
Finally, always check out an editor's history by contacting other authors with whom he or she has worked to make sure the charges are legitimate and the work is first-class.
Got that? Good. Now, I'll leave you with one caveat: I would have killed to have had any of this advice available to me when I launched my career as a freelance writer/author at the age of fifteen. I didn't have, and the mistakes I made took me years to overcome. That's the bad news.
The good news is that I overcame them to become one of the most widely published writers in America. Call it luck. Call it determination. Call it kismet. Whatever you call it, don't credit me.
If I can be of any additional help, here's where you can reach me: www.djherda.org. Feel free, you or your daughter, to reach out anytime for any reason.
No charge. No horrible advice. No kidding.
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new ebook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack.com.