QUESTIONS? Contact Joelle Steele at
I answer questions from writers. I try to answer all questions by Monday mornings at the latest. Not all questions make it into this column, but every reasonable question is answered by E-mail, so be sure your E-mail address is correct. You can use your browser's "find" or "search" function on the Edit menu to search this page. I also answer questions about publishing and website publishing.
Q & A Material as of MAY 15, 2017
Q. I'm writing a novel, and I'm just curious about how long it should take. How often do you write? How long does it take you to finish a book?
A. It takes as long as it takes. Every author is different and every book is different. No two novels are ever the same. Some take longer than others. I write every single day, not all day, but a bare minimum of two hours per day. However, I'm not always working on a book or on the same book when I'm writing, as I always have more than one book in various stages of completion, and I also write articles and promotional pieces too. In general, I spend about 350 to 450 hours on a book from start to finish, usually over a period of about six months, give or take a week. That includes research, book/plot chart, outline, timelines, appendices, bibliographies, glossaries, writing, rewriting, editing, proofing, etc., all according to what each book requires.
Q. I got a publisher for my book, but they want me to do some pretty major rewriting. How common is this kind of request and how long should it take to do the rewrite?
A. Congratulations on getting a publisher. Rewriting is not unusual, especially if you are a first-time writer, but even experienced writers sometimes have to go through the rewrite process on the advice of the publisher. How long it takes depends on the reason for the rewrite, the kind of rewrite you're doing, the length of the manuscript, and how quickly you work.
Q. Even when I have a great idea for a story, I often have problems completing it because I can't navigate my way through the plot to a successful conclusion. How do you see from the start to the end of a story before you write it?
A. When I teach writing classes, this subject comes up from time to time, and input from other writers in class indicates that everyone does it a little differently. But, most of them assemble the plot prior to writing anything, usually in the outline, and most writers tend to write within a particular genre, so they use the plot techniques associated with that genre. You might want to look for books and articles that address plot in your particular genre to see if that can help you better organize your story lines.
Q. I have finished my novel but I need to know if it is good enough to be published. I thought if an editor could look at it, they could tell me what to do with it, but they all want to charge me just to read it. It's not that long. What should I do?
A. Congratulations on completing your novel. I know that some writers believe you should never pay "reading" fees to editors, but I completely disagree. I rarely read manuscripts for authors, but when I did I charged for my time and expertise. If you need an expert opinion about the viability of your project, you have two options: pay a reading fee and get an expert evaluation of the work, or query it to publishers and hope that if one asks to read it that it will pass muster.
Q. Two publishers want to print my article. Is there a right or wrong way to decide which one should do it?
A. I usually figure it's a matter of first come, first served. However, if they offered to publish at the same time, you should probably use your own judgment as to which publisher is best for you.
Q. I get all excited about writing a story, and then I lose interest. Is this a common problem? How do I get myself motivated to finish a story?
A. It is not unusual to drop some writing projects when they don't seem to be going where you want them to go, but if it happens all the time and you can't ever finish a story, that is a problem. Planning, organization, and self-discipline are at the heart of all writing projects. This is something I can't teach you to do. It takes practice. You have to force yourself to work on a story even if you aren't excited by it at the moment. Sometimes it's just a matter of figuring out where it went wrong so that you can get it back on track and recover the excitement for the story that you had initially.
Q. I am a first-time author and I am having problems finding a literary agent. They all want to charge me $500 and up just to read my manuscript. This doesn't make sense to me. What if they read it and don't like it? Then I would have to find another agent and pay another $500 to them!
A. You should not have to pay a reading fee to a literary agent. Start by trying to find a publisher on your own by writing a great query letter. You'll have to write a great query letter for a literary agent anyway, so start with one for publishers and send it out first.
Q. I took one of your writing classes many years ago in southern California. I now write part-time about subjects related to the industry in which I work. So far, I have had more than 100 articles published. Now I find I am running out of things to say. Where do I go from here?
A. You can write a book, jump-starting it with your articles. You can see if some of your topics are relevant to other industries — repackaging and reselling them. You can update existing articles with additional or new information. You can look at other things that are of interest to you, possibly things that are related to what you have written about, and write about them. When I run out of things to say about one topic I shift to another. In the 1970s, I started my career writing about art, photography, and music. In the 1980s, it was small business, anthropometry, and horticulture. In the 1990s, it was home gardening, cat care, and astrology. In the 2000s, writing, publishing, and genealogy. In the 2010s, so far it's been computers, websites, art/design, and photography — sort of coming full circle to where I started but with an interest in different topics within those subject areas.
Q. Do editors usually have specialties? I enjoy editing, but I don't want to keep doing some of the projects I've been getting, such as academic pieces.
A. Most editors do specialize in at least a few genres or certain topics. This enables them to more efficiently market their services to the writers and publishers of the kinds of works they most like to edit or the subject matter in which they are acknowledged experts.
Q. I have seen your guidelines about how long it takes to write a novel or a short story, but how long should it take to write the outline for a novel or a short story or an article?
A. I find that the outlining process takes me quite a while for a book-length manuscript — usually about 12 hours. Outlines for short stories around 3 hours. For articles, maybe an hour. Also, you do tend to get faster and more efficient at outlining the more you do it.
Q. I have written a book about a subject that seems to be viewed by publishers as depressing and controversial, but I think it is an important subject that is not covered well elsewhere. How do you sell a publisher on such a difficult topic?
A. You look for ways to show the publisher why the book is needed (research your market, give them the statistics, etc.) and how the book will benefit the reader (what concrete solutions you have to offer). Those are the things to emphasize. If you can put a humorous spin on it, that might help too — and there really is a humorous way to promote even the most depressing and controversial subjects.
Q. How long should it realistically take to write a novel? I've been working on mine for two years and I still have so much left to do.
A. The time it takes to write is based on how well you outline, how well you write, how fast you type (do speed drills online to get your speed up to at least 60 WPM). If you work a full-time job and you're only writing a few hours a week, it will take you considerably longer than it would if you were working on your novel full-time. The novel itself also dictates how long it will take. Margaret Mitchell was a skilled writer and editor and she worked on her only novel, "Gone With The Wind," for several years. But she was also a working writer and submissions editor, so she had to find time to write GWTW. It was a big novel with lots of characters, she made many changes along the way, didn't write regularly, there was historic research involved, and she was typing it all on a manual Remington typewriter!
Q. Every time one of my articles is published there are a lot of changes made to my punctuation, especially the commas. I can't find a definitive answer to exactly when to use them. Do you have any suggestions?
A. Commas should be used to separate main clauses, long adverbial clauses, transitional words and expressions, and items in series. They should be used to introduce a direct quotation, to separate words to avoid ambiguity, and in terms of address and geographical names, among many other things. If you are writing regularly — and it sounds like you are — I suggest you get a copy of the "Chicago Manual of Style," as that would fully answer any questions you might have about commas and all things grammatical. You can probably find a copy in a used book store.
Q. I read your article about submitting a manuscript, but I'm not clear about whether or not the paragraphs should be indented? Also, should dialogue be indented or flush left?
A. If you are submitting a hardcopy printout for editing or review, you can indent or not indent, and dialogue can be indented or flush left. But, when you are submitting your final file for publication, everything should be flush left, unless the publisher requests otherwise in their guidelines.
Q. I used my late grandmother's diaries and letters in writing my family history. Recently, I've been told some of her information is not true. Why would she lie? How do I find out the truth?
A. People don't necessarily lie — although they might — but they may just be repeating what they heard incorrectly or only partially. This seems to happen most often because a parents tells a child something at a level that is appropriate for the child's age at the time. The child may then assume it is the whole story and may pass it on to others when they are older. To be sure you get the truth, always look for as much recorded documentation as you can find — birth, death, marriage, and baptismal certificates; deeds; court proceedings; newspaper clippings; etc. — even if you think you know the truth.
Q. I am a writer and I notice that you write contracts. I've always been interested in legal writing. What do you recommend to break into that field?
A. I spent a few years editing for lawyers, and I took classes in legal writing and contract law. But you may want to consider becoming a paralegal instead. These days, I think that would provide you with a wider knowledge of the law, greater credibility as a legal writer, and a better chance at earning a living.
Q. The Web has so many writing opportunities, but the pay is low — sometimes only 2 cents a word — and the quality of the writing is very poor. I am a very good writer and I'd like to write for the Web, but it seems impossible to make a living at such low pay. Your perspective?
A. I rarely write for e-zines or other Web sites. As you noted, no money in it. I write fast, but $4 for a 200-word article doesn't work for me. As you mentioned, the quality of the writing is poor. I note that writing is often not even proofed, and I don't see much fact-checking being done at all. If you don't mind being associated with those types of writers and those kinds of Web sites, go for it, but I personally don't see the point. Magazines of the newsstand variety are so much more lucrative in the long run.
Q. I am new to editing and I'm editing a friend's manuscript. He uses "they" for a single person instead of writing "he/she" or "he or she," and I'm not sure if that is now considered appropriate. What do you say?
A. I say that trying to write in non-sexist language is difficult without using "they." Since language is always evolving and changing based on what is used in everyday speech, I consider the use of "they" to be acceptable. I think it is especially necessary if "he/she" or "he or she" is used so extensively that it affects the overall readability.
Q. Can I re-sell a short story? I have several that have been published, but I didn't get paid much, and I'd like to make some money for all the time it took me to write them.
A. You can re-sell a short story if you sell to publications that don't have overlapping readerships. You can also re-sell a story by re-writing or re-framing it for a specific audience or word length restriction.
Q. I am confused about what constitutes libel. If I write a negative opinion about someone, is it libel?
A. You can write whatever you want about anyone as long as it is not deliberately and intentionally false or mere speculation being passed off as truth. However, in the long run, I don't really think writing negative things about people is particularly professional for any writer. For example, if you want to prove a point about something questionable or wrong that a politician has done, let the facts do the talking. Mudslinging is always the mark of a rank amateur.
Q. When I re-sell an article to another magazine, exactly how much do I have to change it for it to be sufficiently different for the second magazine to buy it?
A. If there is a significant overlapping readership, they probably won't buy it no matter how much you change it. But if the overlap is minimal, then you should change the style of the article to meet the second magazine's, and you should also change your examples and possibly interview other experts, or remove any information that doesn't pertain exactly to the second magazine's readers.
Q. Is there a rule of thumb for how long a romance novel should be? Words? Number of chapters?
A. In general, any book is considered a novel if it is over about 40-50,000 words. Less and it is a novella. Most romance novels, aside from the Diana Gabaldon-type epics, are closer in size to novellas. Chapter lengths are determined by their content — what you have to say in them — not by how many should be in a book of any particular size.
Q. When changing viewpoint in a book, can you just change it from one chapter to the next, or is it better to divide the book into sections?
A. Either is fine. Your story should dictate which will work best.
Q. How long should it take a person to write a 1,000-word article? It took me a whole day to write it and at 12 cents a word that's not even minimum wage.
A. No two articles take the same amount of time, but a whole day is excessive in any case. I'm assuming you're new to the writing business. You probably either need to learn to outline better, type faster, research more efficiently, or interview people more quickly. An article of that size should take about three hours tops.
Q. How do I know if two magazines have an overlapping circulation? I want to sell them the same article, with minor changes, but I don't want to step on anyone's toes.
A. Contact each publication or visit their Web sites and find out who their readers are. Most magazines provide demographics and other circulation details to their potential advertisers, so you should be able to obtain enough information to determine if overlap exists.
Q. I am looking for a publisher for my book, and I want to know if I should use my pen name when I query or my own name.
A. Always use your own name when you query. You can specify the use of a pen name when you get a publisher.
Q. I see that you write lyrics, and I have written some lyrics too, but I have trouble making the rhythm or meter come out correctly. Your lyrics seem to flow and yet I can't even see the meter or the structure or even the rhyme in some of them. Can you please explain this?
A. When you write lyrics and don't have a composer handing you a tune to go with them, you have to create some kind of "dummy" melody for them — or pick some obscure song from the past to use as a framework for your words. That melody will help you see how your words will "sound" when sung as opposed to how they "read" when merely spoken. You will most often need some kind of rhyming structure (AABA, ABAB, etc.) but even that is flexible to some extent, and the rhyme does not need to be exact as long as it is close. The rhythm and meter can vary to some degree, because sustaining a syllable (a note) when sung can carry you through those kinds of variations. That said, once you work with a composer, you will probably have to make some adjustments to the words to suit their melody.
Q. I joined a writer's group but I'm afraid to talk much about my writing because I don't want anyone to steal my ideas. How can I get around this?
A. It is highly unlikely that anyone is going to steal your ideas. They've probably got more ideas than they can possibly work on as it is. I'm always happy to talk to anyone about any ideas I have. If they can take one and run with it, I say go for it. I've got another thousand or so ideas — they're a dime a dozen and every writer should be able to come up with at least one per minute.
Q. How long should my query letter be? What should it contain?
A. I recommend about 250-300 words tops. Editors are busy people who are swamped with queries. Say what you need to using as few carefully-selected words as possible to illustrate what you are querying. Start with an introduction to the work, expand on it in the second paragraph, state your credentials for writing this work in the third paragraph, mention any photos or illustrations or sidebars that you intend to include or have done to accompany your writing in the fourth paragraph, and then write a closing paragraph thanking the editor for their time.
Q. What is a kill fee and how does it work?
A. A kill fee is what is paid to a writer when their article is not published. Not all magazines pay a kill fee, so you have to check their writers guidelines to see if they do. The fees vary but are usually nominal amounts that are roughly equivalent to about 10% or 20% of the fee that would have been paid had the article been published.
Q. How much can I excerpt from a published work for use in an article?
A. Well, obviously the amount you excerpt should not exceed the amount of content that you write yourself. But beyond that, it is a matter of how critical the excerpts are, and whether you need to excerpt large amounts of text to make your point. For example, do you need to excerpt entire paragraphs, or just a sentence or two. There is no rule about this, but for the reader's sake, try to use only what is truly essential.
Q. I sold an article idea to a magazine. After I researched and wrote the piece, the focus of it changed and the editor rejected it. I spent a lot of time on that article — it's 4,500 words. What now?
A. Sell it somewhere else. In the future, always do your research before you query.
Q. My writing interests lean towards social issues and the environment. I'm not an expert in those fields, but I want to educate people on what I consider to be very important topics. How do I establish my credibility in those areas?
A. By always writing extremely well-researched articles that include meaningful quotes from experts in their fields, and by tackling timely topics and making them read with the enthusiasm that you have for your subject matter.
Q. I have written a couple of novels and they have been published. I am now working on a novel that I hope will be the first of a three-book deal for me. I want to model my heroine after someone I know personally. Can I do this? She is not famous or anything.
A. If she is recognizable to anyone at all or if there is even the slightest chance that she may be offended or damaged in any way by using her personality as a character, I highly recommend that you visit an attorney and make a written agreement between the two of you stating the way in which the character will be defined in the novel, and stating that she agrees to this and will not sue you for damages, or has to approve a novel before submission, or whatever she wants and your attorney recommends.
Q. I just started writing commercial copy about six months ago. I have had three jobs so far. I have now been asked to write a "lifestyle" TV commercial for a product, and I'm unclear as to exactly what that means.
A. Lifestyle commercials are not centered so much on the product itself as they are on the people who use the product and the kind of lifestyle those people enjoy. In a lifestyle commercial you would write things that showcase the people using the product or how they feel after they use the product, rather than talking about how the product is made or what's in it or how it compares to others like it, or what it costs, etc.
Q. I am a first-time writer. I was going to self-publish my book because it seemed impossible to find a royalty publisher, but self-publishing was going to be too expensive. So I'm looking for a royalty publisher after all, but they seem to want books from literary agents. Do I need an agent?
A. Absolutely not. There are many book publishers, and most do not require that your work be agented. You just have to take your time and go through the "Writer's Market" and the "Literary Marketplace," and visit online directories, and make a long list of every publisher that works with first-time authors in your genre. Send them all queries. This is simply a step in the job of being a writer.
Q. I recently completed a novel, and a publisher was interested, but they did not like the way I handled the viewpoint. I wrote part of it in first person and part of it is in third person, almost alternating the chapters. The publisher thinks it is confusing and recommends that I use one or the other but not both. Is there a specific protocol in this area?
A. Alternating viewpoints are not new, but they can be confusing depending on how they are handled. I would have a few different people read it and see if they have any problems with understanding it before you decide to rewrite. Also, reread it yourself and try to see if you can specifically pinpoint where there might be confusion due to the changes in viewpoint. Maybe you just need better segue ways from one to the other.
Q. About two years ago, I had a book of poetry published as part of an award that I won. There were supposed to be 1,000 copies printed. I received three. I cannot find the book anywhere on the Internet, and I went to a bookstore and they can't find any record of it either. I have written to the company that published the book, and they don't write back.
A. Wish I could help you, but I don't know what happened or why they aren't writing or why you can't find the book. This could have been a scam or someone went out of business or who knows what. Have you contacted the company that gave you the award in the first place? Seems like they would want to know.
Q. I have so many ideas for books, short stores, articles — you name it. But I don't feel like I can write when I actually sit down to do it. I get distracted by noises from the street, my neighbor's stereo, and just the piles of stuff on my desk. How do other writers deal with these kinds of distractions?
A. I am also very easily distracted by noise and clutter. Solution? I clean up the clutter, file it all away, throw out what is old and outdated, and leave my desk clean and free of any kind of "stuff." Then, if it's a particularly noisy day, I simply wear ear plugs or, if I don't require too much concentration, I listen to tunes on my MP3 or pop a CD into the computer.
Q. A catalog publisher has asked me to write the descriptions of his products, but I don't know where to begin because I have pictures, names, and prices, but I don't know much about the products.
A. Easy solution: Ask them for more information. Maybe they have old catalogs that can give you clues about what to include and you can rewrite accordingly. Most publishers know that they have to provide writers with information to use in writing, so drop them a line or visit their website — if they have one — and study what's there.
Q. I have been sending out queries and then manuscripts for one of my short stories and no one seems to be interested. How do I figure out what is wrong so that when I query another story I will not have this same problem.
A. Have people read your stories and specifically ask them to tell you everything they think is the least bit wrong with it. You might also want to run it by an editor to see what their reaction is in general. It is probably a good investment on your part to find out.
Q. I am writing my memoirs. Can I use the name of a song and the artist who made it famous without his permission?
A. Yes, but you cannot reprint the lyrics or the music itself without the permission of the songwriter's publisher.
Q. I have all of the love letters that my husband and I wrote to each over our 55 years of marriage. I want to write our love story for our children, incorporating these letters into it. How do I do this? First person or what viewpoint?
A. Memoirs of this sort are usually written in first person and the story is usually told more or less chronologically, starting at the beginning, possibly with an introduction or preface saying why you are writing the story and what you want the readers, in this case your children, to get out of it. You can make the story friendly, funny, charming, romantic, or whatever style fits the story. You can just insert the letters wherever they fit within the story itself.
Q. The notes from the editor my publisher hired say that my syntax needs work and that I must rewrite almost everything. I'm not even clear on what syntax is and how it differs from grammar.
A. Syntax is simply one of the elements of grammar. Syntax refers to the arrangement of words and phrases within sentences and paragraphs, and more specifically refers to how this ordering of the words and phrases directly affects the clarity of the content and the overall flow of the language. When I used to edit manuscripts, syntax was the single biggest problem I saw in almost everything I edited (probably because most schools have stopped teaching it). Learning to critically evaluate your own writing for its syntax is a big part of being a writer. Read my article Preparing Your Manuscript for Editing to see some examples of good and bad syntax.
Q. A great deal of government information has recently been declassified and it pertains to something that happened to me and to some of my ex-government co-workers in the early 1980s. I am trying to find somebody to write the story for me on spec, but no one seems interested. I am not exaggerating when I say it is a very hot topic and could easily be a bestseller.
A. Your story may or may not become a bestseller. I never write on spec and I don't know any professional writers who do. I'm sure there must be some out there, but you have to realize that it takes far longer to write someone else's possible bestseller than it does to write your own, and most writers don't want to spend what little free time they have writing your bestseller when they could be writing one of their own in half the time.
Q. I have tried several times to do an E-mailing to some publishers who I thought might be interested in my completed manuscript. At least half of what I send always comes back as undeliverable. Why is that?
A. People change their E-mail addresses frequently, and publishers go out of business just like everyone else. Or, their submission editors move to other companies and get new addresses. It is just a consequence of E-mail addresses not being taken as permanent addresses ... yet. Just keep on mailing and hope for the best.
Q. If I can't find the right publisher for my book in the "Writer's Market," are there any other similar directories or other ways to find a publisher?
A. You can try the "Literary Marketplace," which is now online at www.literarymarketplace.com. Your other option is to look at similar books at your local bookstore and library and see who is publishing them and then look them up on the Web and contact them.
Q. I have an idea for a book but I don't want to write it until I know someone out there will publish it. How do I find a publisher for my book?
A. You don't have a book; you only have an idea for a book, and publishers want a lot more than that. These days, publishers generally want a completed, edited manuscript. You need to go to bookstores (regular stores and online stores) and look at what is currently being published and who is publishing it. Once you've done these things, you can go online or pick up the latest copy of the "Writer's Market" and go through the listings one at a time and mark all the ones that are looking for what you have to sell. Then you write a query letter to those publishers and let them know that you've got a manuscript ready for their review. You also let them know what other published books are similar to yours and how they compare. Then you wait for a publisher to respond.
Q. I find a lot of conflicting advice for writers on the Internet. You seem to be pretty logical and straight-forward about the process. Have you written any books on the subject?
A. I have a few books for writers, but none like what you are talking about. Meanwhile, I do recommend my ebook Unblocked, because it tackles some of the most common problems associated with writing, many of which have to do with your work environment, support structure, sleep patterns, and other non-cognitive problems, although the latter are covered as well.
Q. I am not a writer. I am a professional person who wants to write a book about a subject in which I am an expert. I can't find a book on this same subject anywhere. If the subject is not already in print does that mean publishers just don't want it?
A. Not necessarily. It could be that your subject matter is complex and hard to put into writing or it could be that most publishers need a bigger audience for it before they'll take it on. On the other hand, maybe they haven't heard of it and would welcome the opportunity to publish it. You won't know until you write it and start querying publishers about it. Good luck!
Q. I wrote two children's books and could not find a publisher. I hope that someday I will find one. In the meantime, I have written another children's book. Now I am wondering if maybe there is something wrong with my writing that is keeping me from getting published. How can I determine what is wrong?
A. You could have an editor take a look at the books for you, someone who specializes in editing children's books. You will probably have to pay a fee for that, but nothing much is free these days anyway, and it's a very small price to pay for an expert opinion that would help you further hone your craft in the long run. What I find is often the problem is the lack of attention to the query process. If you have only sent out three or four queries, you are simply not querying nearly enough. Try sending out 100. And be sure you know how to write a good query letter. There are articles and books on the subject to help you do this.
Q. Is there a specific length in words or pages for a short story? I see some that are very short and others that are like a novella.
A. I have seen short stories defined as anything between about 5,000 to 15,000 words. But some magazines ask for 2,500 words for a short story, so I think that the story itself will dictate its length as will the manner in which it is published.
Q. Do I have to copyright my articles before I submit them to a publisher?
A. No. First, you own the copyright as soon as the work is completed; publishers only copyright the magazine as an entity itself, not the individual articles within it. Second, the publisher's guidelines should let you know what rights you are selling, and those are the publishing rights, such as the first serial rights to publish an article in north America, not the copyright.
Q. I have never had anything published and all I have ever written are two short novels. How do I find a publisher?
A. You start by picking up a copy of the "Writer's Market" and going through it page by page, reading the entries until you find a few publishers who are looking for your kinds of manuscripts. You then send them query letters with self-addressed stamped envelopes for their reply, and then you wait to hear from them. I suggest you look for some books on getting published to learn how all of this is achieved. Good luck!
Q. I have written a novel in which roughly half the story takes place in 19th century Holland. I gave it to a friend to read, and he said that the Dutch dialect was difficult to follow. How do you determine how much is too much when you're writing dialogue with a Dutch accent?
A. Any written dialect should provide the aroma rather than the food. You want to give the reader a sense of how the language sounds without making them "chew it" or work at understanding it. Only write words with a Dutch accent that must have that accent. Add some descriptive language to illustrate how the speaker might sound when he/she is talking.
Q. Does a writer need to study grammar and spelling in the classroom, or can they rely on a grammar and spelling program and maybe an editor to make sure everything is correct?
A. Being a writer means knowing how to write. These things can be studied in the classroom and by using books. The only two editors you should have are a content editor and then a proofer.
Q. I have written a 200-page book for the industry I've been working in for the past 30 years. It is a much needed resource for the people in that industry, and I am estimating that there are at least 80,000 of them worldwide who would benefit greatly from the information in this book. I don't want to self-publish because I don't have the time to market the book. How do I find a publisher for my market?
A. Start by looking at who is publishing books for that industry right now. They may have an arm of their company that services certain types of industries, including yours. If they aren't interested for some reason, you might want to contact your industry's professional trade associations and see if they want to publish it.
Q. I have been struggling with query letters for the past three years. It takes me forever to get one finished. I follow all the advice on how to properly craft a query, even though that style doesn't fit my personality at all. What alternatives do I have?
A. I understand. The important thing in a query letter is expressing what is in your proposed book. How you do that depends on you as a person and the book itself. I never did the "captivating" first paragraphs and I still got my books published. I recommend that writers simply be sure to include the title, its description, an explanation of how it complements another article or book by the same publisher, where it fits into the marketplace, etc. In short, send them an offer to do business in your own words and not in some cutesy canned format that may not even fit with what you have written. It always worked for me, not matter what I was selling: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, books, articles, etc.
Q. What are the acceptable ways to handle pronouns so that you don't have to use "his/hers," "him/her," "she/he," etc.?
A. I usually rewrite the sentence when possible, otherwise I prefer to say "they" or "them," and I will be the first to admit that may not be considered correct by everyone. I recommend that you refer to "The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing for Writers, Editors and Speakers" by Casey Miller and Kate Swift. I feel they cover this topic very well and offer examples of ways to reword sentences to avoid this dilemma.
Q. While looking for potential publishers in the "Writer's Market" I came across one that asked for a brief bio. I am new to writing and would like to know what that bio should include.
A. It should include one or two paragraphs that state your general writing credentials or other expertise that would make you attractive to a publisher. For example, you should include how long you have been writing, what you write, what you've had published, any awards you have received, any professional organizations to which you belong, your educational background, and any special knowledge you possess that qualifies you to write the book or article you are querying.
Q. I would like to write websites for people/companies. Are there any tips you can give me for making a success doing it?
A. If you do not already do so, learn to write as briefly and concisely as possible. Attention spans are short when it comes to reading Web pages. People want information and they want it now. Save longer articles for the informational back pages of a website and focus only on the basic essentials for the promotional front pages. Make sure you learn how to properly code the pages with all the necessary keywords in the meta tags as well as in the text itself. You should probably read up on SEO (search engine optimization) if you have not already studied it.
Q. After several rejections of my article ideas, I finally got an editor to feedback why: "Trite. Need something fresh." What does this mean?
A. Ouch! It means that you are not coming up with anything original that they have not seen a million times before. It means that you need to be more in touch with what readers want. You may need to think of more interesting or unusual subject matter and/or a different approach to your subject matter that is more timely, hip, controversial, from an insider, etc. Be sure you know the publications before you query them so that you'll know what they've already published and what they generally like to see in an article.
Q. I have been asked to write the history of a non-profit organization. They have offered me a flat fee on completion, but I am uncomfortable with this arrangement. Is it appropriate or acceptable for me to ask them for a retainer or monthly payments?
A. Yes, it is perfectly acceptable. But before you do anything, make sure you can live with the fee they have proposed. Sometimes an amount of money sounds great in and of itself, but when it comes to the amount of time you actually spend performing the work you may end up getting paid only $5/hr.
Q. I have difficulty staying on track with a main plot. As I write, I get off track with little subplots and descriptive narration until I can't make a natural segue back into the plot. How do I avoid this?
A. You probably need a much more thorough outline than you are currently using. Include all your details and subplots in the outline so that you can ensure that they are in the appropriate places for natural segues back to the plot.
Q. I just spent roughly 800 hours over the past two years writing a novel. A publisher is offering me only a small advance of $2,500 — only about $3/hr for all my work! This seems outrageous. What do you think?
A. Many publishers offer only very small advances — if they offer advances at all. This is largely a result of so many would-be authors not delivering their completed manuscripts and not returning their advances when they don't. To be sure that you get paid for all your hard work, make sure your publisher is going to do all they can to promote your book so that you can receive your compensation in the form of royalties.
Q. A publisher read my short novel and said that he liked my story but that it needed "major" editing and rewriting because it rambled too much. That is my style, a kind of stream of consciousness type of writing. I want to have my work published, but I don't want to have to rewrite it. What do you recommend?
A. Rewrite it. Stream of consciousness writing lacks appeal and rarely sells well. For most readers it is exceedingly difficult to follow. It is okay for journaling or for poetry, but it just isn't what most publishers want for their readers. Remember that whatever you write is always a form of communication between you and the reader, regardless of the genre. The publisher knows this, and now, so do you.
Q. I am 28 years old, I have a degree in communications, and I would like to be a professional editor. How do I go about finding such a job?
A. The same way you look for any job. You look for help wanted ads in newspapers, magazines, and online. You go through the yellow pages and the "Writer's Market" and try to find a publisher with whom you might want to work, and you send out cover letters and résumés — these days, usually by E-mail. With a degree in communications, you may have to explain your qualifications for editing, e.g., classes you have taken in grammar, vocabulary, composition, literature, etc., that demonstrate a thorough knowledge of writing and the English language.
Q. Do I always have to enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope with my queries? With postage so high and the response rate of publishers so low, it seems like a waste of money.
A. It is a waste of money for querying since most of that is done by email these days. But, if you want a manuscript back, the SASE is a necessity.
Q. Can I write a novel that does not have chapters?
A. I suppose so, but it would seem to be contrary to the way most people read books. Publishers and librarians might not like it, particularly if it is a very lengthy book. Are there other such works that you are aware of that set a precedent for this kind of style? Is there a need for it to be written without chapters?
Q. I have written a book for an industry that has no other such book available written specifically for it on this particular subject matter. Should I try to find a royalty publisher or just self-publish?
A. If there is a royalty publisher that specializes in books for that industry, you should at least try to get them to publish it first. Self-publishing can be very expensive and, since the marketing is in your hands, it can be an extremely time-consuming and ongoing venture.
Q. Why is it so hard to get published?
A. I am going to assume that you know how to write and that your skill is not the problem. As I see it, the main difference between me and most writers who struggle is in the amount of querying and the ability to craft a good query letter. I always researched my markets very carefull and queried very heavily. I always sent out simultaneous queries, even though it is frowned on. But since many publishers take months to respond, I figure it's first come, first served — a girl's gotta make a living! Queries are a writer's sales calls. You need to learn to write a great query letter and you simply cannot query too much or too often.
Q. The editor at a magazine I write for frequently asks me to rewrite portions of my articles. I don't see anything wrong with what I wrote, but she insists that I make changes before she will publish. I want to write for this magazine but I'm tired of constantly redoing my work.
A. Most editors have very good reasons for wanting something to be rewritten. It could be content or it could be style. You need to discover exactly what it is that this particular editor wants that you are not delivering so that you can anticipate her needs and fulfill them before she has to ask for rewrites. You should sit down and look at what you wrote and analyze what she wanted rewritten. If you can't tell from that, ask her.
Q. I feel very isolated as a writer. Sometimes it makes me depressed to not have any friends. Is this common to other writers? Will I ever get over it?
A. Isolation happens to everyone, even people who are working with other people can feel isolated at times. Writing is just a job like any other. If you lack friends, it is not because you are working in a solitary profession as a writer. I suggest you do two things: 1) seek professional help, even if it is just a few one-hour chats with a local psychologist, and 2) develop some hobbies and interests and go out and make friends with people who share those interests.
Q. Does a book that is indexed sell better than one that is not?
A. I personally prefer a book with an index, and I hear that libraries (who buy tons of books) prefer them as well. But while some books absolutely demand an index, it is merely optional for others. Think about how the book will be used, and if looking things up is a big part of that use, then do the index.
Q. A publisher requested my manuscript and I sent it along with a large SASE for its return. They have now had it for almost a year. Three weeks ago I wrote and asked that they return it. They have not responded. What can I do?
A. Welcome to the world of publishing. I always sent a SASE and only twice received a manuscript back from a publisher. My advice is to print out another manuscript and look for another publisher. There are reputable publishers out there. You just have to keep looking for them.
Q. My late mother started to write a novel and abandoned it about a third of the way through. I am the sole beneficiary of her estate and I would like to finish the novel. If there are two authors, even though one is deceased, do I get paid the entire royalty if the book is published?
A. I am not a lawyer and I recommend that you consult one.
Q. I have signed with a great literary agent for my non-fiction book. The manuscript is complete. How long do agents typically look at your work before they decide it is ready to be submitted to a publisher?
A. It varies from one agent to another depending on how busy they are with other client properties, how soon they might get around to reading yours, whether they will want you to make changes, whether they are editing the book or having it edited, if they are looking for an illustrator, etc. These are basically things you should ask before you sign with an agent or a publisher. They should be willing to give you an approximate range of time and explain what they will be doing during that time.
Q. A magazine editor has asked me to co-write a regular column with another writer. Neither of us is sure how to do this, but we are pretty sure it will be a great column if we can figure it out. What do you suggest?
A. I have co-written two ongoing columns and both were successful. It wasn't really difficult at all. In both cases, we would discuss the idea for each column and then one of us would write the outline, the other would do the introduction, one would do the sidebar, the summary, etc., depending on who had the best idea for what. Then we would just work back and forth on it until it was done to our mutual satisfaction. Usually, when an editor hooks up two people it is because they each have a different perspective or strength with regard to the subject matter. Try to make sure that those perspectives or strengths are always addressed in each column.
Q. I was hired by a production company to adapt a screenplay from an unpublished novel. I have done this sort of thing before. But this time around I am having problems making the story transition from book to play without losing the beauty of the story. I'm at a loss to explain the problem to the producers. Your thoughts?
A. I'm not sure if I can help you because I happen to think that some books are best left as books. You can't make every book work as a movie. Just take a trip through your local video store and see how many times it's been tried and failed. You lose a lot in trying to condense anything into a two-hour film. Maybe the novel you're trying to adapt just isn't meant to be. How about a multi-part made-for-TV series instead?
Q. Two months ago, I sent out my first query for a magazine article. The editor rejected my story idea. Now an article has just appeared in that magazine on the very same subject! I am furious that they stole my idea and had someone else write it. What can I do?
A. First of all, it is extremely unlikely that your idea was stolen since editors usually assign or acquisition articles several months in advance of publication. That said, your "idea" is just an idea, not a copyrightable work. If your article, i.e., your words, your sentences, etc., had been published with someone else's name on it, that would be a legal problem — plagiarism — but that is not the case here.
Q. I wrote a fictitious account of a real life event. I changed the names of all the parties, but two of the publishers who have reviewed the manuscript rejected it, one saying that it was too close to the truth and that I needed to fictionalize it further. I don't know what that means. Have I done something illegal?
A. No, you have not done anything illegal ... yet. You risk a lawsuit for invasion of privacy if you relate a true incident that is recognizable to someone who reads it. To fictionalize it further, you need to change the locale, some of the events, and anything that would enable a reader to figure out who the story is about. Changing the names is rarely sufficient to protect the privacy of the real people behind the story.
Q. I submitted my manuscript to a literary agent a year ago. To date, she has only submitted it to two publishers. I don't want to nag her about this, but only two publishers in one year? Is this normal?
A. It is normal for some literary agents. It depends on what publishers they are submitting to and how long those publishers hold on to the manuscript before they finally get around to reading it. I usually recommend that before you submit anything to a literary agent that you contact as many publishers as possible who are willing to review unagented manuscripts. You should review whatever materials or correspondence there is between you and your agent to see exactly what she agreed to do. If necessary, you can probably withdraw your manuscript and begin submitting it elsewhere.
Q. How do writers make a living writing articles when the magazine publishers take so long to respond to queries? I sometimes have to wait five months before I get a response. I'm sending to the right person, but this time lag is so long.
A. I know that the so-called experts say you should not send simultaneous queries, but I do and I always have. If a publisher is so overwhelmed with queries and attending to other duties that they cannot even send me a prompt rejection, I can't allow that to impinge on my efforts to make a living. I send out simultaneous queries all the time, often with the same several article ideas in each query. Whoever bites first is who I write the article for — "you snooze you lose." I think that a lot of publishers should be ashamed of themselves for being so unprofessional in responding to queries. I once received a response from a publisher that was regarding a query I had sent four years earlier. Did they honestly think I was still waiting to hear from them after all that time?
Q. Help! I am overwhelmed with research files — three 4-drawer filing cabinets full. Do I keep them and assume this is just a writer's career burden? I can't even find things very easily anymore. But there's some great stuff in those drawers.
A. You sound just like me up until about 2002. I had four 4-drawer filing cabinets and decided to go paperless. Every other day for about six months, I took a short stack of files out of a drawer and went through them, usually in front of the TV at night. I highlighted things I wanted to type up or scan and put them in a pile. Everything else went into the recycling bin. I then spent about an hour a week typing and scanning, always citing the source for the info that I typed up. I now do this regularly with every new thing that crosses my desk, and I am down to a single half-filled file drawer in my desk.
Q. I have had some of my work published over the years, but I also have a lot of story and book ideas that I have sort of started on but never finished. Is this common for writers?
A. I would certainly hope so! You need to have lots of ideas floating around most of the time. Just because you don't finish them doesn't mean they aren't good ideas. Maybe they are, maybe they're not. Maybe their time has just not arrived yet. I have literally hundreds of ideas that I've started on and never finished. I keep them all in an "ideas" folder on the computer. I look at them from time to time to see if anything grabs my attention. Sometimes I dig something out and work on it for a few minutes, usually just adding some additional thoughts into the file. You never know when some day you'll look in the file and see something in a new way and be inspired to complete it. If you never do, writing files don't take up much space on the computer ...
Q. Six months ago I queried an e-Zine and they "bought" my article and published it just three weeks later. They told me in an E-mail that they would be paying me $50, but so far no money. I have E-mailed them several times and they don't respond. There is no phone number or anything on their website. How do I get my money?
A. I'm sorry to say that you probably won't get your money. I have been in the same situation with E-zines and I don't query them anymore. Like so many websites these days, many e-Zines do not even bother to reply to their E-mails and do not pay as promised. I think they know it is too time-consuming (and expensive) for the average person to take legal action against them, so they just don't care. If you continue to write for e-Zines, investigate them as thoroughly as you can and only write for the most reputable ones you can find.
Q. My German great-grandmother finished writing her memoirs in 1960, just two years before she passed away. She tells a great story that spans three continents and almost 95 years. I have translated it into English, but I can't find a publisher.
A. It is next to impossible to get personal memoirs published unless you are a celebrity. But it can be done. I suggest you visit some bookstores and also search online for similar kinds of books and then contact those publishers. Be sure to mention the most unique and compelling aspects of this memoir in your query letter.
Q. I want to write, but I always seem to be so stuck and so unable to spend the time that is necessary to sit down and do it. How do ordinary working people ever become writers?
A. Writers are ordinary working people. They have just made room in their lives for writing, made it a greater priority, found the necessary discipline, etc., to do it. I strongly recommend that you download my ebook, "Unblocked," as it contains all of the information you could possibly want that would help you achieve your writing goals.
Q. I am about to give up on all my dreams of being a writer. Every article of mine that has been published was so severely edited that I hardly recognized it as my own work. Is this some ego thing with editors that they feel they must change everything to the way they would write it?
A. Editors at magazines have a job to do that includes adhering to the editorial style of their particular publication and the department within that publication. You, as a writer, have the obligation to learn to write in the style a periodical dictates. That's what writers guidelines are all about. And that's why you need to familiarize yourself with each publication in which you want to be published. When you write your novel or your poetry or your short story, you have more room for advancing your personal style. But when you write for a magazine, you are writing to their style. Take a good hard look at the editing changes made to your pieces and try to incorporate those changes in your future submissions.
Q. I don't type very fast, so it takes me quite a long time to complete my article assignments. I don't even aspire to write a novel because of how long it would take me to finish one. Do you think that having my work transcribed from dictation might be a better option for me?
A. I doubt it. It would certainly cost in excess of what most writers make on their articles. Why don't you take a typing class and get your speed up? It's just a matter of practice and it is an investment of your time in acquiring a skill that no professional writer can afford to be without. There are even programs you can run on your computer that have typing speed drills to help you improve speed and accuracy.
Q. Everyone kept telling me I should get my poetry published. I couldn't find a publisher, so I finally emptied my savings and had it published myself. Now I have all these books, no money, and no way to sell them. Any suggestions?
A. It is always very tempting to self-publish, but your problem illustrates the main reason that it is rarely a good idea to do so. Printing a book is only one small part of the process. Marketing the book costs a lot of money — and time. You might want to gradually send copies out to reviewers along with a short review that you write yourself. Send to local as well as major newspaper book reviewers, send to online publishers of poetry, and try to arrange some book signings and poetry readings for yourself at bookstores.
Q. In 1988, I had a book published. The publisher sold all copies but never did a second press run. I would like to revise the book and get it republished, but the current publisher doesn't want to do it. Do I own the rights to this work now that it is out of print?
A. Probably not. You will need to write to the legal department of the publisher and ask them to release all rights to you, in writing, before you query the revised version elsewhere.
Q. I have never been published. I have queried my short stories to book and magazine publishers with no results — they don't even ask to see my stories. Would I stand a better chance of getting my short stories published if I had a track record of published non-fiction? I'm open to doing so.
A. I find that many unpublished writers of fiction do have greater difficulty getting their first piece published than do writers of non-fiction. In that case, trying your hand at non-fiction might help. However, I think it is more likely that there are other reasons why your stories are rejected. For example, your query letters could be weak and may not adequately demonstrate your writing ability and/or your ability to sell your work. Or, your stories may not match the publisher's editorial agenda, in which case you need to more carefully study back issues and writers guidelines to learn what they want.
Q. I have tried your advice about writing with an outline, but it is hard for me to tell where my subplots are and how they are progressing, because I tend to revise the outline a lot as I write.
A. Have you thought about using a plot chart in addition to your outline? I work well with just an outline if I'm doing a short story. But, when I'm writing a book-length manuscript, I find that I need to start with a plot chart and then do the outline based on the plot chart. Here's a sample plot chart.
Q. A literary agent has advised me to do some substantial rewriting of a manuscript. He said that after I make the changes he will review the manuscript and would consider representing it. I have worked on this manuscript for six years, and I am now very happy with it the way it is. I don't want to invest more time in it and risk having the agent reject it. What do you advise?
A. Before you do anything, I suggest that you just spend some time thinking about the recommended rewriting changes and how they might affect your story. I'm not saying that whatever a literary agent thinks or recommends is always right. But, before you dismiss him out of hand, you might want to give it serious consideration. Then, if you still feel that your manuscript will not benefit from the changes, you may wish to query other literary agents or publishers and see what they think.
Q. My manuscript was rejected by an editor who said that my characters were "flat," but he didn't explain what that means or how to correct it.
A. When characters are "flat" it means that they lack depth, that their motivations are not clear, that they are dull or uninteresting, and that they need "fleshing out." When you first create your characters, particularly a key character, create a life for that person in the form of a bio. You don’t have to publish this bio in its entirety within the manuscript, but by creating it you will be able to use parts of it to describe and explain your character’s actions. Your character’s bio can contain such information as a family tree and various important family relationships, a resume, a list of friends and descriptions of them and their roles in the character’s life, educational background, hobbies and interests, physical health and appearance, speech patterns and mannerisms, personal habits and idiosyncrasies, life philosophy, goals and dreams, fears, and events in life that have made them who they are today.
Q. What is the difference between a forward, preface, introduction, and prologue?
A. While many consider these to be more or less interchangeable, they are actually not; they serve very different purposes. A foreword is usually written by someone other than the author to lend credibility or sales potential to a book. The preface is usually written by the author and explains why he or she wrote the book and explains its purpose. An introduction is usually a longer, chapter-length presentation of background information that leads up to the content of the book. Sometimes the introduction is really just a first chapter and may also be written by someone other than the author. A prologue is usually a very brief and often dramatic introduction that sets up the events to come, sort of like what you might find at the beginning of a novel or play.
Q. I still type on my trusty old typewriter. Can I get my manuscript published without having it retyped into a computer?
A. Possibly, if you have it scanned into a software that can convert it into a text document or if you pay to have someone type it into a computer for you. You will then have to edit the computerized document since it will likely have typos that need to be fixed before you can submit it to your publisher. If you are a professional writer, you should celebrate the 21st century by getting a computer. The ease of writing you will experience using that technology will make you a better writer, no matter how talented or skilled you already are. And, it will make you appear more professional and accommodating to publishers.
Q. I am unclear about the difference between libel and slander. They sound like the same thing to me.
A. That’s because they are both forms of defamation, or injury to another’s name or reputation. The difference is that libel is written and slander is spoken.
Q. Is it plagiarism if you claim authorship of material that is not copyrighted and is in the public domain?
A. Plagiarism is plagiarism, but in most cases, it is not illegal if there is no copyright infringement. But why would anyone want to be a plagiarist instead of a writer?
Q. I never know whether I should be referencing the source of quotes in the text or as footnotes or endnotes.
A. You may do either. It is often more a matter of what works for a particular manuscript and what your publisher requires. In most cases, if you have a lot of quotes, possibly from the same person, you may not want to reference each within the text, as that would take up a lot of room and become repetitious for the reader. On the other hand, you may want to emphasize who is speaking or whose studies are being quoted, in which case having that information in the text would be preferable to using footnotes. And if you do use footnotes and they start taking up too much space, you might want to use endnotes instead.
Q. Is it a good idea for a writer to specialize in only a particular type of writing or a particular field of interest? Would I benefit from such a focus?
A. Specializing can be a real benefit when it comes to marketing your work. You would be able to establish yourself in a specific market and in a particular style of writing (novel, non-fiction, gardening, screenplay, horror, etc.) and that would enable you to get to know all the various publishers in your little niche. However, this can also be limiting if your field of interest is a small one. You might want to consider a collection of similar or related niches in which you can fit your work that will enable you to market effectively and also have some room for growth and change.
Q. What is the difference between having your book backlisted and having it remaindered?
A. Books that are backlisted are those that are still in print a year or so after they were first published, and they are still being sold in bookstores at list price. Books that are remaindered are those that are slow-movers or that aren't selling at all, or that are extras from a too large print run. They may be sold at a much-reduced price, and the author receives a reduced royalty on them as a result.
Q. When I go through the "Writers Market," I find that there are so many publishers that have "imprints" listed. What exactly is an imprint, and do I query each imprint?
A. An imprint is a line of books that are categorized as being of a certain type or consisting of a certain subject matter. For example, a large publishing house may have an imprint for young adult fiction, one for art and architecture, one for romance, etc. Each imprint usually has its own editorial department, so you should query those imprints for which your manuscript is suitable.
Q. Is it better to use a "flashforward" or an "epilogue"?
A. One is not better than the other because they are used differently. A flashforward is just a glimpse into the future, usually included at the end of a story to let the reader imagine what is probably going to happen to the characters after the story ends. It is usually no more than a couple of sentences at most, and it can sometimes hint as to what might follow in the way of a second book or sequel. An epilogue, on the other hand, is usually a three- to six-page wrap-up of what happens to one or all of the characters after their story has ended. It is basically a way to tie up loose ends when the story has brought people together only for the purpose of that story, and then in the end, the characters return to their respective lives, possibly or presumably changed as a result of their experience.
Q. What do all the various editors do? I see so many different titles all the time, and I have no idea what their responsibilities are.
A. There are many kinds of editors, and their responsibilities are not always clearly defined, and the same title can mean something different to each publisher. In general, you have two main types of editors: text and administrative. Text editors are variously called copy, style, line, proof, and content editors. Copy and style editors usually work with the completed manuscript to correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Line and proof editors correct galleys or page proofs once the manuscript has been typeset, looking for anything that was missed by the copy editor or that may have been inadvertently changed during the typesetting process, checking for consistency of fonts and type sizes, eliminating widows and orphans, etc. Content editors check continuity, storyline, character development, chapter and volume breaks, and conformation with publisher’s styles. They can also be experts or quasi-experts who are hired to edit a manuscript that is in their particular field in order to verify the accuracy of a work in terms of its facts, figures, terminology, historic or scientific content. Administrative editors manage manuscripts as properties and are usually called acquisition, submission, managing, production, and associate editors. Their duties revolve around evaluating, acquiring, assigning copy and content editors, marketing, and in all ways creating a book or magazine article from your manuscript. Editors-in-chief work closely with publishers and editors to make long-term decisions on the direction of the publishing activities of the company.
Q. I have written a short novel, and I would like to know how to characterize it in my query. Is a short novel called a "novella"?
A. A novella is a short novel, usually from 10,000 to 40,000 words. If your novel is shorter than 25,000 words, it may also be called a novelette.
Q. Is there any chance that my short stories might get published as a collection, or is there a market for short story collections by first-time writers?
A. If you can get some of your stories published in magazines, it would probably help. On the other hand, you might find a publisher who specializes in the kinds of stories you write and who is always on the lookout for fresh new talent.