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About Writing Right: The Blog


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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A writer asked online recently how to get a proofreader to proof his material before sending it to a publisher. Forget the ridiculous answers he received from other respondents. I gave him the real lowdown. Here's what I said.

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The answer to this one is simple. Pay him.




Or is that too simple? Is it possible that, rather than asking "how" to get a proofreader (the answer to which is painfully obvious), what you're really asking is "where" to get a proofreader? As in where do you find one? The answer to which is a little more complex. But only a little.


Of course, you can go to an online meat market to locate a proofreader. Places such as Reedsy and Fiverr advertise help in writing and publishing and boast a list of available proofreaders (let's call them editors for convenience) where you can hire one and hope for the best. But a recent investigation showed them to be more interested in working with editors who fit their "style" and "purpose" (which is cranking out big bucks) than with editors who really know what they're doing. You might have a different experience with them and luck out. You might not. Either way, I'm not impressed with their standards. And I train editors in how to be better at their editing jobs, so I know what I'm talking about. Read More 

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Some people were talking about fiction the other day, and the topic got around to exotic settings. When asked about some of my favorited novels based upon the uniqueness of their settings, I couldn't help but respond.


Of course, you have to understand that "unique settings" are unique only to people who don't live in that place. Exotic Fiji isn't very exotic at all to a resident there. As for examples of my favorite settings, here's one that comes to mind. It starts out in Miami and quickly moves to exotic St. Lucia, where the son of a murdered woman marine biologist sets out to bring the killer to justice. In the process, he befriends a native chieftain, runs afoul of black voodoo, and stays two steps ahead of an overzealous suitor while falling in love with a woman who, it turns out, is his adopted step-sister! All ends well in the end, although not before putting the protagonist through some strangely harrowing and unexpected experiences.


The book is The Last Wild Orchid, which I not only read numerous times but also happened to write. It's one of my personal favorites. Go figure.




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I came across an online question the other day asking about who gets paid royalties. A strange question for many reasons. Nevertheless, here's how I replied.

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If this question is really what you wanted to ask, the answer is simple: everyone who earns them.


Satisfied? I didn't think so because I don't believe you asked the question you wanted answered, which is: When does an author get paid royalties?


If I'm correct, the answer is a bit more complicated than my original response—but only slightly. All authors who signed with either a conventional, advance-paying publisher or a POD self-publishing aggregator such as Amazon KDP, Barnes & Noble, D2D, and Lulu receive royalties. The royalties may vary from one publisher to the next, depending upon numerous factors, but the royalty percentage (the percentage of the book's earnings that the author receives for each sale) is in the author's contract with the publisher. So is the frequency of the publisher's payouts. Most conventional publishers pay royalties earned to their authors every six months or twice a year. KDP pays monthly. Read More 

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When someone inquired online as to where to find a low-cost or free reputable literary agent, I had just the right response. Here's what I said.

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Let me set the record straight here. No reputable, honest, and effective literary agent represents an author for free, and no one does it at a "low cost." All legitimate agents charge a flat 15% fee taken from the sale of a book to a publisher made during that agent's contractual lifetime with his or her client/author. The fee is deducted from the advance (if any) and the royalties (also if any) paid by the publisher for as long as the book remains in print. The agent takes 15% for all income generated by the book. That's one of the reasons literary agents are hard to find and even harder to land. Writers don't hire them; they sign writers, albeit an extremely limited number of them. If a writer's work fails to generate sales, the agent can go hungry or terminate that writer's contract with the agent and find another writer whose work is more marketable. In that respect, being an agent is somewhat of a crap shoot. And not at all as easy or capricious as many writers seem to think.


A legitimate agent is like a salesman in that he earns his keep from selling. No sale, no commission. To procure a sale for an author, the represented work must appeal to a publisher. And, of course, the agent must do all the legwork—from the final formatting of the manuscript to getting it into presentable condition, matching the work to the appropriate publisher, negotiating contractual details, securing an advance, reviewing and evaluating the finalized contract, and keeping the lines of communication open between the publisher, the agent, and the author. The agent is also responsible for receiving all payments from the publisher, deducting the fifteen percent agency fee, and forwarding a check for the balance to the author. Read More 

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Someone asked online the other day if it's important to format your manuscript before submitting to a publisher or an agent. Not coincidentally, few people responded. One, however, did and missed the boat by a mile. I stepped in with this.

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Unfortunately, the Queen of Wrong blew yet another one. I'm sure she feels from an egotistical point of view that her experience or preference equates to universal truth. It doesn't. Unlike Queenie, I'm not only a niche genre author but also an author of all genres, an instructor, a conventionally published author of more than ninety books and tens of thousands of articles, short stories, blogs, columns, and television and video scripts, but also a diverse professional editor. I've sent out probably ten thousand pitches and pieces in all genres in my half century of writing and publishing, and I've seen even more as a book, magazine, and newspaper editor. I know there's only one standard way of formatting a manuscript. And it's not placing your contact information in the right-hand corner of the cover page. Just the reverse.


Put your name, address, e-mail, and phone number single-spaced in the upper left-hand corner of the cover page. Put the word count ("XXX Words") flush right on the first line (opposite your name). On the line below that word count, also flush right, you may want to include the rights you're offering for sale: "First N.A.S. Rights" (first North American Serial Rights) for articles/short stories/blogs never before published or "One-Time Rights" for regional magazine/newspaper/blog publications as appropriate, or "All Rights" for book-length manuscripts. Read More 

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A budding author asked online whether or not a writer has any say over what cover a publisher decides to use for his new book. As usual, the number of silly responses were amazing. Here's how I straightened things out.

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Well, the Queen of Wrong strikes again. In her response, she says that, if you self-publish, yes, you have a say in what the cover will look like. A say, you say? If you self-publish, of course, you have a "say" in what your cover will look like because you (or someone you hired) provided it! You're the arbiter there. But that's not the question you asked, is it?


You want to know if, when a conventional publisher publishes your novel, you have any control over its cover. This is where Queenie really goes awry, assuming her limited history is indicative of the industry as a whole. Let's get real for a change, shall we, and respond to those things about which we actually know. Read More 

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A writer-type fella posted a question online the other day on how many edits an author should give his book before considering it finished. Here's what I replied.

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Congratulations. You received not only two previous answers to your question but also two horrible previous answers. That's batting a thousand. It might be a new online record.


For the respondent who said, "For newer writers, it's prob beat to only do do after you've finished your piece," forget him. Anyone incapable of editing the first fifteen words of his own response about editing so that it's understandable is incapable of offering a cogent and meaningful response.


For the other respondent who advised you to "Try to get it right the first time around!" when you're on a tight deadline, well, really? Isn't that what writing is all about? Trying to get it right the first time around? And isn't the purpose of editing to go back and revise those things you failed to get right the first time around? Am I missing something here? Read More 

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I ran across a question the other day that went something like this: Must an author only write a novel about something he has personally experienced? Well, I like shooting ducks in a barrel, so here's how I responded.

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First, is this a serious question, or did you lose a bet? If you read the other two responses you've received as of this writing, you know what I mean.


Second, if you read those responses, you should also know enough to take both of them with a big grain of salt. The respondent peddling a book telling how long it takes to write a novel, what you should do "about your first draft" (whatever that means!), and how to revise is ridiculous. Making blanket statements designed to fit every personality, work ethic, and talent level is a waste of time and energy. There is no blueprint for writing a novel—only suggestions on various ways to do it.  Read More 

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