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It’s OK to Ask for Help

July 1st, 2010

Though David Morrell’s talk last weekend at Seton Hill University did not specifically address this topic, he did touch on it, and I suppose recent events made me latch on. In his introductory remarks, he mentioned research and how you should strive to get details right (I agree!), so you should ask people for help. If you’re writing about cops, find a cop and ask questions. Need to know how an emergency room works? Go down to your local one. Most people, he said, will be willing to help out especially since they are curious about the process of writing.

I have to admit that I usually try to find answers to those types of questions myself. I love book research! But you do miss the authenticity of experience with that method. And what do you have to lose by asking?

As I hinted earlier, I’ve had some experience asking for help of late. This past weekend at Seton Hill, I had some car trouble thanks to a battery that decided it was on its last legs while I was a couple hundred miles from home. By the time I left early Sunday morning, I had been forced to ask for three jumps, including twice from the same campus security officer.

I felt like an idiot asking for help the second time, but I guess that’s life.

Whether it is because I am naturally an introvert, and perhaps even edging into shy in some situations, I do have difficulty asking for help. I’d rather not draw that kind of notice, and one of my driving impulses is to avoid inconveniencing others. I’m nearly obsessive about being on time because I’d hate to make others wait, and when it comes to decision-making time, I tend to consider first how my decisions will affect others. This applies to major issues all the way down to small things like how closely to the curb I should park my car.

I suppose that though I do worry about my so-called “carbon footprint,” what I most worry about is my “inconvenience footprint” (which plays into my environmental beliefs since I would rather not inconvenience the generations to come, not to mention the planet that has already given us so much).

And yet, I attempt to be a helpful person, not turning people down unless I really cannot help (I attempt to deflect the “Can you critique my 300-page novel for free?” questions as gently as I can–mostly it’s because people have no concept of just how much work that is). So why shouldn’t I allow myself to reach out and ask for help once in a while? I’ve been slowly going through my contact list, asking people to help promote the campaign for Fantastical Visions V, so I’ve been getting a bit more comfortable with the idea, especially since everyone has been so gracious about it, helping out in various ways.

So, maybe next January I’ll try to get up to Seton Hill a day or so early, look up my campus security officer friend, and ask if I can shadow him for a day to learn about the job for a supernatural thriller set on a college campus that I’ve been meaning to write.

I’ll swear to him that my car is in working order.

So you want to be published.

December 21st, 2008

I receive several emails a month asking me how people should go about getting published, so I wrote this blog in order to give as much advice as I can in one place.

First off, the ways in which one can become a published author vary (every author has their own story), and depend upon what kind of writing you do. Most of my experience is in the publication of fiction, so that is what I will focus on–though much of the same advice holds true for non-fiction writers as well. I am also going to assume that the ultimate goal is to publish a novel.

1: Read in Your Genre: You want a career in letters? Then you’d better be an avid reader. Focus on your genre. Read the classics and the modern masters. Take note of what is good and of what is bad. Get a feel for what works for you as a reader. Get familiar with the expectations of your genre. Know it inside and out so that your work will feel comfortable and familiar enough that readers are willing to take a chance on it (oh, this guy is compared to my favorite author!). You must also know how to surprise and wow them, though, since that is what will bring them back for more.

2: Read Widely: Don’t get stuck in the genre ghetto. Roam around the bookstore or library a bit. Cherry-pick titles from other genres. See what you can learn from them about the craft. Read lots of non-fiction. That will enrich your brain, and give you lots of ideas to play with. The more you know, the more real you can make your imaginary world and people.

3: Write Well: Sounds obvious, but it’s not. Writing is a fine art that requires a lot of work to get right. You can teach yourself by following steps one and two and practicing your writing everyday. Add to that by reading books about writing and style. Join a writing group. Maybe even go to school for writing (if you want to write popular fiction, take a look at Seton Hill University’s distance-learning masters program).

4: Find an Editor: Despite doing steps 1-3, most people will never be able to clean their own manuscript to a perfectly professional polish. It is very hard to look at something objectively when you are that close to it. At the very least, put a draft in the drawer for a few weeks before going back over it and attempting to give it a thorough edit. That time will allow you to step back just a little bit. Then read the manuscript out loud. You’ll hear a lot more mistakes and poor style. If you can get an experienced writer to critique the manuscript, that’s a plus. But an edit from a professional editor will still make a very large difference. Shop around until you find one you are comfortable working with. I’d appreciate it if you keep me in mind, too. 🙂

5: Sell Some Short Fiction: Try your hand at short fiction, especially if there are markets for it in your genre. The speculative fiction genre is blessed to have for information on markets. You can also refer to the 2009 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market. You want to try and get some publication credits under your belt to show a track record of having your work recognized as publishable and that you are familiar with working with editors and publishers.

6: Develop a Platform: Get known in the writing community or some other organizations. Teach. Give talks at conferences. If there is some current issue that is even tangentially related to your novel, get out there and get involved. When the book comes out, tie all of that work together. Be prepared to speak and attend events.

You absolutely need to be out there selling your book . . . and agents and publishers are going to want to see that you understand this and have already begun to build your network. Given the choice between two equally great books, one written by a hermit, the other written by an activist, there really is no choice for the smart publisher.

7: Pick a Publisher or Agent: Use resources such as the 2009 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, 2009 Guide To Literary Agents, or Jeff Herman’s 2009 Guide To Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents to zero in on agents and publishers who you think would be a good fit for you. I would not recommend going with either a publisher or an agent who has placed ads about seeking new material. They may not necessarily be scammers, but chances are they are too new or unconnected and desperate for material.

Some people say to find an agent first. This does make sense since many of the larger publishers will not accept unagented materials. Others say that you should get a publisher interested before querying agents. Once you receive an offer, just say something along the lines of, “I have to run this by my agent.” Then you edit your query letter by adding information about the offer, and start sending your packet to agents. This will sweeten the deal for the agent and make them more willing to take a look.

Yes, the agent will still expect a cut even though you were the one to make the sale, but it will be worth it to have an agent looking over your contract and watching out for your best interests.

8: Send Query Letters: A good query letter is very important for both agents and publishers. Think of it as a job interview. You need to present yourself as professional and confident, but approachable and personable. Your letter must be brief. Three paragraphs ought to do it. Greet the person in the opening and explain why you’ve chosen to send them material. If you have any kind of connection with them (you’ve met, they represent your mentor, their client recommended that you contact them) mention it here.

Then you need to introduce yourself and give a little background information if it is relevant to the material you are pitching (if your main character is a high school teacher, and you’ve taught for ten years, mention it; if you graduated from a creative writing project, mention it). Then you need to describe the project as quickly and convincingly as you can. No more than one or two sentences, though. This is not the place for a complete synopsis.

9: Speaking of the Synopsis: You should have two kinds. The first is your page-long synopsis. It can be single-spaced. The longer one should be double-spaced, but is roughly a page per chapter. Obviously, it is going to go fairly in-depth.

You usually only send the page-long version with your query and the page-per-chapter version with your complete submission when asked for it. Pay attention to what publishers and agents want you to send. Many of them want different things at different times. It all depends on how they like to work. So pay very close attention to their submission guidelines. If you do not follow them you will appear to be unprofessional, careless, or possibly even so self-obsessed that you do not care about making life easy on the people who could be making your writing career. And you don’t want that. Agents, publishers, and editors are very busy people. They will remember the ones who do not respect that fact.

10: Repeat: You’ll probably have to do that last step several times over. Get used to rejection. This is not a business for the overly sensitive. Acquisitions are based on personal taste, experience, and the agent or publisher’s understanding of the market. Tastes and the market are always shifting. Sometimes editors do make mistakes. Legendary editor Robert Giroux failed to sign Jack Kerouac.

But even if you feel someone has made a huge mistake by not signing you, don’t burn any bridges. The idiot who did not offer you a contract might end up taking the place of the editor who eventually did (or they might be good friends), leaving you in a sticky situation if you bad-mouthed the first editor at conferences or on your blog or a discussion board.

11: You are Working on Another Book, Right?: Don’t allow all of the business aspects of writing and publishing take over completely. You should always be writing (that’s what makes a writer, right?) and working on something new. Then, if you never manage to place your first piece, soon, you’ll have something else that you can shop around.

12: Networking Matters: It’s not all about who you know, but it’s certainly a big piece. Yes, you need to have talent and a polished book, but you also need to get to know the players in the game. Publishing is very much a personal business, and it is a very small world (which, as I hinted above, could be a bad thing if you don’t play by the rules . . . but it should be a boon if you consistently play nice).

So get involved in writing groups to get to know authors near your home and listen for any networking opportunities. Go to conferences and conventions so you can meet established authors and (hopefully) their agents and editors.

13: Final Thoughts: Despite all of the advice out there on the subject, the reality is that there is a different story about each author’s path to publication. It all depends on being in the right place at the right time, with the right combination of talents, surrounded by the right people. It’s much like having the proper alignment of stars for a fortuitous birth . . . except that you have control over much of the process and can work towards aligning all of the pieces.

A short story of my own

May 27th, 2008

A couple weeks ago I discovered that Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress 23 was open for submissions via e-mail . . . for four more days. I’ve been thinking lately that one of my big regrets from the past few years is that with all of the time and energy I’ve put into Fantasist Enterprises, I have done very little writing of my own. Besides that small burst of creativity roughly this time last year, and a short story I wrote in December, I’ve written nothing more than letters, e-mails, marketing materials, and the occasional blog.

I slid into the publishing business thanks to my love of reading and writing. Story is my passion, and I decided that I wanted to spend my time working with it. I knew I had a lot to learn about writing, and was planning on going to Seton Hill’s writing popular fiction program so I decide to focus on learning about publishing by doing it, and allowing my own writing to simmer on the back burner while I worked. I reasoned that after graduating from Seton Hill, I’d been more accomplished at writing, and could then turn my attention more towards getting published.

Even though I completed a draft of a novel in order to graduate, and I wrote a handful of short stories during school, after graduation, writing just faded away. The bug bit every once in awhile, but never so hard that I really accomplished anything. Seeing that call for submissions really made something click. It’s time that I actually make the time to do some writing of my own.

So I gave myself a challenge. I would write a story to submit to the book, which meant coming up with an idea, writing it, getting someone to proof it, make any final edits, and e-mail it . . . in four days, knowing that I would be working on three of those days.

I placed a link to the webpage about the call for submissions in my Firefox toolbar as a subtle reminder, told a few folks that I would not be as responsive as usual over the next few days, and then did my thing. On the days I worked at my part time job, I ran through scenes in my head and then I would jot down notes and rough blocks of prose during my breaks. I only had Thursday all to myself since there was a lot of work to be done for VEINS on Tuesday. So that meant a few very late nights and early mornings.

I managed to do it. I wrote 37 pages, had Meesh proofread it, did some fine-tuning of my own, and sent it out. I did not have high hopes, and I am sure the story is still rough, but the point is, I gave myself a challenge and I pulled it off.

And yes I got a rejection less than 24 hours later, but I saw that I can write and actually finish stories, and rather quickly. If I could survive on three to four hours of sleep a night indefinitely, I’d be able to churn out a novel every month at that rate.

So my next writing challenge is to finish a novella that I started months ago, and actually send it out to Writers of the Future. From there, I’ll just have to watch out for more interesting anthologies to try and write for.