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About Writing Right: The Blog


A forum reader asked a question the other day: For how much can I sell the rights to my book?" As usual, plenty of respondents were quick to jump into the fray. Unfortunately, as usual, most were dead wrong or at least partially misleading. Here's how I responded.

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Well, of course the Queen of Wrong missed the boat again, and the ship has sailed once more without her. Unfortunately, no other respondents to this question fared much better. Rather than talking about self-publishing and your followers being "uneducated people," as on respondent called them (which I find a highly insulting), maybe we should drill down to your actual question: For how much can you sell the RIGHTS to your book? Not how much can self-publishing make for you or how many copies will your followers buy. Your question has nothing to do with self-publishing or ignorant followers. It has to do with conventional publishing and economics.


The real answer to your question (with apologies once again to Queenie) is that it depends. You don't say whether or not you've written the book yet, so that's a variable. You don't say how dramatic or marketable a story you have, so that's another variable. And, with both of those variables, you can't get an answer without doing a little more leg work. Read More 

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I get asked this question periodically, and my answer is always the same.


No. Period. End of story.


In fact, no great editor has ever been behind a great writer (except, perhaps, by chance) because great writers don't' require them. Here's what I mean.


First, "great" editors don't grow on trees. After producing more than ninety conventionally published books, each one being assigned at least one editor and usually more, and after studying editing and working as a professional editor myself for decades, I can't count a single other editor I thought was great. Not those working for me, and not those working for the publishers who assigned their editors to check my work. Some editors I've known were far better than others, you understand. But not one contributed meaningfully, or transformationally, to my work or any great writer's work of which I familiar. Why would he have to? If a work is great, it's not going to need a "great editor" to make it even greater! And if it's not great, its author isn't great.


That's not to say no editors ever improve the work they tackle. Most do. By pointing out little things along the way, all of which (as all "great" writers know) add up to a better finished product. Read More 

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When someone posted a question online the other day, I was surprised at the number of responses he received--some of them actually pretty good; others, not so much. The writer asked, "How do you come up with good ideas for a book?" Naturally, I, being the Kind of Book Concepts, had to respond.

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You have received a few good answers to this question already. I especially like Brenda's response because a.) I like the name, and I never got to date a girl named Brenda when I was growing up, and b.) she asked the penultimate question you need to ask yourself: "What if?"


In reality, you already answered your own question when you used the word, think. French philosopher Descartes once said: "I think, therefore I am."


Get it? Everything comes down to thinking. Including human existence. Writers (and everyone else, by the way) should think all the time, every second they're awake, every moment they're alive. Think about what they're preparing for lunch. Think about how they're going to pay all the bills this month. Think about what their neighbor meant when he greeted them this morning. Think about thinking about things. I think, therefore I am. It's a brilliant piece of introspection. Most of all, it's imperative for all artists everywhere. To think, to question, to postulate, to speculate, to find out. In short, to beRead More 

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I came across a writer online the other day who asked in a forum if a publisher can cancel a contract or book deal. Luckily (?), I've had a bit of first-hand experience in this area, so here's my response.

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It's nice finally to see the Queen of Wrong get something right for a change—a little—although her definitive answer is anything but.


Yes, a contract can be "canceled" by the author submitting a sub-par quality book to escape from a long-term contract. But that happens rarely, since everyone knows the author's capabilities going into the deal, and getting a contract pulled under those conditions would mark the author as something he'd rather not share with his mom. Also, few publishers would be quick to jump at a chance to cancel an author whose ongoing series (i.e., long-term investment) is still making money. Publishers have editors, too. And they have access to other freelance writers. And they have the legal right to rewrite any or all of a book and deduct the costs of doing so from the author's future earnings if the author refuses or fails to do so himself.


Yes, a change of editors could prompt the cancellation of a contract in its early stages, but it's certainly not likely once the publisher has paid advance money and invested in development costs. In fact, it's highly unlikely. Read More 

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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: Read More 

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I ran into a question online the other day from someone who wanted to know if he could write his entire book in lower case. The misleading responses he received goaded me into replying. (It doesn't take much):

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Absolutely. I say, if you want to write your book in all lower case, go for it. And, while you're at it, why bother using English grammar or syntax at all? I just started revising a book I started writing several years ago, utilizing a technique along those very lines, and I can't wait for the world to see it once it's finished. Here's the "old" opening, in case you're interested:

  • To be, at first glance and considering all else, among John's most favored—notwithstanding anything unknown to humankind, as the cosmos is the ultimate being rivaling all else in, among other things, civility et al; that is, in being civil, learning civilness, and practicing civility—is certainly desirable. But, on the other hand, if one at second glance appears, even if unwillingly or otherwise, but not withstanding the desire to adopt a willful misuse of the privilege to react accordingly (albeit without cause) or, on occasion, rarely: Even with it one should not, except under relatively rare circumstances, of which there are so many—to be accorded such a lofty, favored position, according to all traditional mores, values, and historical precedents, that would be really swell. I guess.

Now, are you ready? Here's my brand new, enlightened, all-lower-case nonconventional version of the very same piece of illuminating literature (far stronger than the old one, if I do say so myself) for your reading enjoyment and edification:

  • to be at first glance and considering all else among Johns most favored notwithstanding anything unknown to humankind as the cosmos is the ultimate being rivaling all else in among other things civility et al that is in being civil learning civilness and practicing civility is certainly desirable but on the other hand if one at second glance appears even if unwillingly or otherwise but not withstanding the desire to adopt a willful misuse of the privilege to react accordingly albeit without cause or on occasion rarely even with it one should not except under relatively rare circumstances of which there are so many to be accorded such a lofty favored position according to all traditional mores values and historical precedents that would be really swell i guess

Man, just sharing that new, enlightened approach to my book with the world is like shagging a monkey off my back! I can't tell you how many years of my literary life I have wasted in my insane devotion to being readable, understandable, marketable, and publishable. I mean, I just can't tell you.


So, yes, by all means, see your new approach to writing through to the bitter end. And good luck!


Oh, and for the respondent who advised you to do "Whatever you can do to stand out from the crowd," I agree. As long as you don't expect anyone in that crowd to do anything other than dump your junk in the nearest trash can. Which is exactly where it would belong.


Just my thoughts on the matter. But then again, I'm a pragmatist, so why listen to me?


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.

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I ran across this question on a forum the other day. Will a book editor comment on a good book when he sees one? I wasn't surprised at the large number of misleading and outright wrong responses the author received. Here's what I know about the subject.

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If, by the phrase "book editor," you mean a conventional book publisher's acquisitions editor to whom you submit your book for publication and not someone you hire to clean it up, the answer is far more simple than your other respondents indicate. Those respondents include the person with a self-published eBook on Amazon and another who, in forty years, has never heard of an editor saying a story is good. The truth to your question is obvious.


Of course he will! That's what a book editor's job is—to find and publish quality, marketable books. Remember?


Now, you didn't ask about a book editor providing a detailed criticism or offering an unpaid assessment or any of the other ridiculous things to which some respondents replied. The reality is that, if a book is any good and fits an editor's list, he or she will tell you so and offer a contract. Even if it's not something upon which he can make an offer (wrong genre, wrong subject, bad timing, not a large enough potential audience), if he's an intelligent and thoughtful editor, he'll let you know you're on the right track. Read More 

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I place little credence in someone who claims that chapter names aren't necessary anymore, as a few writers do. Quite the contrary: They can be of great importance both to the writer as he's working on developing a book and to the reader as he peruses the TOC page to decide whether or not to buy it on the spot or order it online.


Of my ninety published books, About Writing Right, a nonfiction how-to, features chapter names. So does my nonfiction bio, Wilma Mankiller. On the other hand, my novel, The Last Wild Orchid, has only title numbers and no names. But my short-story collection, Chi-Town Blues, does. For me, it all depends upon what feels "right" for that particular book. There is no universal preference.


As for your question, I have the consummate answer to how to come up with good chapter names. Brainstorm! Put something down, jot down a few alternatives that come to mind, and then decide which one works best for you. Rinse, dry, and repeat. It can take even the most creative writer nearly forever to come up with a single name that checks all the boxes. Read More 

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I ran across a question from someone online the other day. He just completed his first novel, feels it needs some help, and is confused by all the conflicting suggestions from readers for whose opinions he asked. Knowing there'd be no lack of suggestions from respondents who don't have a clue as to what they're talking about, I set about setting him straight.

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Well, first off, ignore the advice given by the Queen of Wrong. It's absolutely absurd. You have already received plenty of grammar, punctuation, and spelling suggestions. Considering that only five percent of all readers are proficient in their understanding of grammar and even fewer of punctuation and spelling, chances are you'll get a ton of bad advice. Should you take it? What do you think? I'm afraid Queenie missed the mark again.


In truth, you can't possibly know which advice to take and which to reject without knowing what makes for good writing, which is why you're having trouble distinguishing between the two. The solution is not to envision the story in your head like a movie and then write an outline. That might help you address one part of your problem (story development), but it does nothing to address the second part of your problem, which is the mechanics of writing.


So, how do you learn your craft well enough to distinguish between good and bad writing? The most obvious answer is to enroll in some highly ranked writing and English courses. Then, in two or three years, you should be qualified to tackle your problem.


Two or three yearsRead More 

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Have you read Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms? If so, did you love it ... or hate it? One author read a copy as an eBook and found it so lacking in substance and quality of writing that he questioned whether or not it was a bad translation from a foreign language. Then, he asked my opinion, to which I responded.

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That's something of a silly question, isn't it, considering you indicated no source for your eBook or shared any of its contents? That reduces anybody's answer to your question to little more than an educated guess.


With that said, I have studied Hemingway's history and works for decades, and I wrote about him (both fiction and nonfiction) on several occasions. Like everyone else in the universe, I have a distinct impression of the caliber of his writing. It's great.


It's great, that is, for a journalist seeking to become a novelist.


For a novelist seeking to be stylishly relevant, poetic, imaginative, and grammatically accurate, it's not so great.
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When someone online asked my opinion regarding using Grammarly rather than hiring an editor to clean up his book, I couldn't resist responding. Here's what I said.

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I can't understand all the divergent responses and comments to respondent Michelle's reply, which was right on target: If you can't afford an editor, you're not ready to publish. To elaborate on her response, here are a couple more points.


First, Grammarly is marginally effective software that is often more damaging in the hands of the uneducated than it is an effective editing tool. I'm a grammarian who has taught analytic grammar at the college level for more than fifty years. I have also conventionally published more than ninety books in all genres, along with tens of thousands of articles and short stories. I've used Grammarly as an adjunct to MS Word's Spell Check to help me catch obvious mistakes, such as misspellings, for years. I ignore seventy-five percent of Grammarly's suggestions because they're incorrect. I mean, they're grammatically incorrect and often take perfectly acceptable syntax and turn it into unreadable gibberish. So, unless you don't need Grammarly except to see if you omitted a word here or there or have an unnecessarily long phrase or a misspelling, don't use it. It is no substitute for a qualified editor. Let me repeat: Grammarly is no substitute for a professional editor—not even close. Read More 

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When a writer asked this online the other day, he received some horrible responses. Here's how I answered.

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First, I would suggest that you not be misled by the response from someone who claims that practicing only one specific form or type of writing will benefit that writing. That is complete nonsense, especially from someone who purports to know enough to teach other writers to improve their literary skills. It is an appalling response.


The accurate answer from someone not shooting from the lip is this: Absolutely, poetry can increase your writing skills. Not only poetry but also business letters, romance fiction, how-to books, biographies, diaries, and whatever else you can think of to write. All writing is intertwined as far as essential writing skillsets are concerned. While writing poetry won't increase your skills in another genre or format immediately, it will do so over time. Read More 

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Someonee asked me the other day how authors find publishers who are willing to support first-time authors in their quest to write their books. My response? You might have guessed.

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They don't. Pure and simple. I'm not sure what fantasies you've been reading to give you the notion that they do, but let me set you straight. Publishers couldn't give a damn about first-time authors and their quest to write a book. We're not talking King Arthur and the Holy Grail, here. We're talking reality. And reality comes in two flavors.


On one side, we have one flavor called publishing. Publishing is a business. It's comprised of corporate entities, most of which have shareholders who meet once a year to elect their boards of directors, discuss their profits and losses, and moan about the lackluster performance of their stocks on the market. Read More 

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Let's assume for a moment that a novel thought just struck you (excuse the pun). It's a sure-fire way to get your foot in the door at a major publishing house such as Simon and Schuster or Penguin Putnam and on your way to having your book not only read but also published. And it can't miss.


Sound far-fetched? I don't know. I had that very same thought shortly after I began pitching my books to publishers and getting stock rejection slips in return. The thought occured to me, even as a writer still in his teens, that if I could only meet with an editor face-to-face to tell him how great my book is, I could convince him to take a look at a copy. Once he read it, of course, I'd be on Easy Street.


It all seemed so simple that I wondered why no one had ever thought of it before. The only question I had was how to go about doing it. Whom should I pitch? What should I ask for? A lunch meeting? An office tete-te? An afternoon in the Park?


If that thought ever occured to you, you're probably still asking yourself how to go about doing it. My answer?


You can't.




Let me repeat. You can't. Here's why. Read More 

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A newbie author recently asked if it really takes 3 - 6 months to hear back from an editor after furnishing him with sample chapters and a synopsis for a book. Naturally, Queenie jumped in with her usual inaccurate response, detailing the life of an unsolicited manuscript ending up in the ubiquitous "slush pile." Here's the reality of the situation.

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Not to question the integrity of the reply from the Queen of Wrong, but, no, not all publishers take 3 - 6 months to respond after receiving sample chapters and a synopsis. I imagine that if she had taken the time to read your question more carefully instead of shooting from the lip, she would have seen the critical elements to your question: "receiving the sample chapters and synopsis."


For a writer to have gotten far enough into correspondence with a publisher for an editor to ask to see sample chapters and a synopsis of a book submission, the author already queried that publisher and met with a positive reaction. Acquisitions editors who request chapters and synopses don't throw them in the slush pile. Ever. They tag them for reading and additional consideration as soon as practical. Read More 

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The question came in the other day: How many books should I write before I publish one? The answers, almost to a one, were ridiculous. One response from a spotlight-grabbing literary wannabe stated outright: one million words. Not very grounded in reality. Here's how I corrected the narrative.

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The Queen of Wrong strikes again. There is no magic number, not "in general" or otherwise. The truth is that you can self-publish the very first novel you write and be happy with it or self-publish your tenth and hate it. Just understand that, in either case, no one else is likely to see it, let alone read and enjoy it, unless you happen to be a marketing guru. But, that's the foible of self-publishing.


As for conventionally publishing a book, here's a reality check: You have nothing to say about when you "publish one." That, my confused newbie friend, is totally up to the marketplace. You can "try" to have a book published by submitting it to a conventional, advance-paying publisher, but whether or not it's accepted isn't up to you; it's up to the publisher. It's a competitive market out there, and all conventional publishers know it. I estimate that more than ninety-nine percent of all submissions to conventional publishers are rejected out of hand. Read More 

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A curious beginning writer recently asked on a forum if it's time-consuming to publish books. I could have played along with the masses and gone off the deep end. Instead, here's what I thought was the best way to handle the question.

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No. Publishing books is neither an overtly lengthy nor an intrinsically "time-consuming" process, whatever that means. Contrary to what most other respondents have advised you, publishing books itself may eat up no more time than shopping for a new car or closing a loan on your house, and it could be lickety-split, depending upon your definition and several unknown entities missing from your question.


Here's what I mean.


For starters, you didn't ask about writing books for publication. You asked about publishing books. The time it takes for that varies with conventional versus POD or self-publishing. While conventionally published books may take from ten months to two years or more, depending upon a large number of variables, they may also take only a few weeks. That's if a particular book's subject matter is timely; if the book is time-sensitive, and if the market is chomping at the bit to read about what the book's author has to say. The first tell-all book on the life and death of Princess Diana, for example, appeared within weeks of her demise. She was killed in a car crash on August 31, 1997, and a book by Simon and Schuster hit the streets that same year. Several more publishers released books not long after.
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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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